“Our biggest challenge was to get out as much information as possible without taking a stance,” says filmmaker Cannupa Hanska Luger.
And that’s precisely what the film This Is a Stereotype achieves, as evidenced by audience reactions at the premiere of the film in its nearly-finished form at the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts during Santa Fe Indian Market last weekend.
Following both the Saturday and Sunday viewings of the rough cut, audience members served as something of a focus group, asking questions like “Why don’t you show the faces of the interviewees?” (The answer: because the filmmakers wanted the viewer to focus only on the content of the dialogue, not on what this diverse group of voices looks like).
The filmmakers (one of whom is my cousin) say they were pleased with audience reactions, and came away with a better understanding of how they might alter the film before its official premiere in October.
It’s a documentary unlike other documentaries—non-stereotypical, if you will—in the sense that it offers hardly any answers but rather leaves the viewer wondering and contemplating.
“We wanted it to be a catalyst for dialogue,” Luger explained. “That was the most important thing.”
In further discussion with the filmmakers—Luger, Dylan McLaughlin and Ginger Dunnill—they adamantly reminded me that the film is a work of art, not a typical documentary set out to change opinions or provide answers to pressing questions.
They explained that too often, people walk away from documentaries with the sense that they can go to a dinner party and school the next person they meet on whatever topic the documentary covered. Suddenly, they’re an expert. And that’s exactly the opposite of how these filmmakers wanted their audience to come away from this film.
In my mind, Stereotype set itself apart from other documentaries and certainly from other discussions of the stereotype issue through its relaxed nature and mellow pacing. Over a calming flow of electronic music (produced by Dunnill), a seamless, continual dialogue of young contemporary Native voices discussing Native stereotypes is set to a backdrop of BIA footage of “Indian life” from 1978. Only at the end does the tempo speed up a bit and we see a series of beautifully shot scenes from the Southwest today—scenes of perpetuated stereotypes via kitschy hotels and stores advertising “authentic” Indian wares and experiences. And because of everything we just heard from this plethora of intelligent Indigenous voices, we are able to laugh at how ridiculous these stereotypes can be.
The film provokes thought, but it doesn’t stress you out or get you riled up. Because of its calming nature, perhaps audiences will feel invited to engage in this dialogue without tempers flaring or emotions erupting.
“We don’t always have to yell about this stuff,” Luger offered. “These conversations don’t always have to come from a place of pain or anger.”
While the film is digestible for anybody, McLaughlin reminded me that they created it primarily for an indigenous audience who are looking to engage in a deeper, more nuanced discussion of the issue. It’s a tool to provoke better questions from those who already understand and care about the subject matter.
“The important part is that we speak to other Indigenous people,” he says.
The official exhibition of the final product will take place in October, but until then, you can join the film’s community on social media via This Is A Stereotype Facebook page, and check out the #ThisIsAStereotype hashtag on Twitter and Instagram. Eventually, the film will be available to view online, free of charge.
Author Chelsey Luger with Cannupa Hanska Luger, who is her cousin. Photo by Martin Sensmeier.