The title of Ojibway filmmakers Adam and Zack Khalil’s début feature is INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./]—and if that’s not a hint that this is something other than a straightforward educational documentary, I don’t know what is. To map their tribe’s past, present, and future, the Khalil Brothers draw upon the Seven Fires Prophecy, and in the process eschew all convention of documentary, unleashing a full audiovisual arsenal against the traumatic circularity of history. What emerges is partly a portrait of the filmmakers’ hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with conversations with friends, family members, tribal elders, and Brett Michaels (who was performing at a local casino), and partly an emphatically counter-archival investigation, with visits to tribal elders, the Smithsonian, and a bizarrely phallic local shrine to the missionaries called, formidably, the Tower of History). There’s much else besides—animated fantasias, satirical remixing, goofy humor, and psychedelic interludes—all of which amounts to a cinematic language that’s utterly uncategorizable: dynamic, hilarious, angry, and sensorially overwhelming, but never passive.
INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./] premieres at Documentary Fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art on February 29.
Leo Goldsmith (Rail): At the beginning of the film, there’s a title card that mentions the evolution of the sort of stories you’re telling—from personal recollection to parable to sacred story to traditional teaching—and this made me wonder about your approach to structure and narrative, especially with respect to history, and with all of the documentary elements in your film, like interviews and archival materials. Were you thinking about all of these various things in structuring your film?
Zack Khalil: I think before we started shooting, we decided the structure of the film was going to be dictated by the Seven Fires Prophecy in some way. That was always laid down as the groundwork, but it’s open to interpretation because we wanted to represent both the historical version of the prophecy and how the prophecy resonates today.
Adam Khalil: There was also always a personal background. Our mom was getting her Ph.D. in Information Science at the University of Washington. She got sick and passed away, but her work was related a lot to the film. We were actually working with her on another project; so it’s kind of this weird collaboration, and for us it was really important to finish her work.
Rail: What was she working on?
Adam: She was trying to get access to archives and collections and returned objects. And she got approved to work on this project at the Smithsonian, and she pitched Zack and me as her crew. She didn’t finish it; we finished it in this way instead.
Rail: In addition to things you’ve shot yourself, you’re obviously using lots of archival elements, but it’s clear that there’s at least two kinds of archives: those of institutions like the Smithsonian and the Tower of History, and of the tribe.
Adam: That’s really how the film started: by thinking through this idea about indigenous information ecologies—information for all; knowledge for some.
Zack: For the trajectory of the film we ended up going through the history in a more literal way and informational way in order to narrativize or mythologize history—to make it a story that has a lesson rather than describing the information of the history. It’s the Ojibway way of telling stories. It’s not a linear progression of A to B to C. It circles around something.
Rail: This seems like a clear contrast to the Tower of History, which features in the film. And not even just different histories or stories, but different structures and concepts of what history and documentary are.
Adam: That’s the core of the film: looking at these two different forms of archival practice. One is the colonial version that encapsulates things to forget about them. The Native version uses history to unite people to tell a story, to guide to people. It has to live through people, not objects.
Zack: That’s why the Seven Fires Prophecy is important—something that happened is happening and is going to happen. That’s the way Ojibway history works. You’re thinking seven generations ahead, and seven generation behind, that’s how you move forward. That prophecy is always happening. Having history that’s that flexible for people to use and change in order to go forward is a really weird and interesting thing.
Rail: How do you see your film in contrast to other types of documentary? I’m imagining there are probably a lot of other documentaries you’re reacting to in the structuring of your film– maybe in particular other documentaries about Native issues.
Adam: Yeah, Native doc for the most part is fucking terrible. There’s the poverty-porn stuff, talking-head, social issue, etc. All these things not coming from an engagement with the place and the people.
Zack: Even the stuff that does still doesn’t amount to a critical view towards anything.
Adam: You have either the drunk Indian or the medicine man, and there’s no room for the person in between. That’s what happens in a lot of those films. The exception is Native feature films. There’s a lot of really cool shit—Native imagination, Native thinking, Native stories. And finally people support it enough and the tech becomes available. There’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls. It’s pretty badass.
Zack: There has been a progression of Natives making docs and feature fictions, where it used to be all white people making films about Natives.
Rail: It’s possible that documentary in general is a bit slower to evolve. People are still very attached to the “issue doc” as a form; something clearly informational and issue-oriented.
Adam: Or film as an afterthought for something else.
Rail: Like a fundraising tool.
Zack: When you present information like that, people stop thinking about it because they know what they’re supposed to understand. There is another thing we definitely set out not to do music-wise: there’s no powwow music.
Adam: There were so many times when we came so close. “Wouldn’t it hit so hard right now?” But, no, can’t do it.
Rail: I was really interested in how you use music—it’s extremely varied and really avoids clichés. It’s clear that you’re approaching it as a crucial element in the film. You treat as something malleable or sculptural—in fact, all of the film’s sound is treated in this sort of musical way that’s very unlike an observational documentary.
Adam: We did a lot with sound. We tried to sculpt it and took elements from music we like, and sound effects.
Zack: I studied electronic music originally. We used to work on school projects together, multimedia installations with audio elements going on. We got used to working in sound and focusing on it, and not just as filmmakers. Sound is really important. Making things weird, as physical as you can. Making you feel in a certain way.
Rail: You’re also playing with the audience’s expectations of what a documentary on Native issues is supposed to be. There’s strange manipulations of the soundtrack—sounds running backwards, for example.
Adam: When we’re editing, we think about how people are gonna watch this stuff, especially since we’re trying to have it communicate to two or three or four groups of people. It’s gotta work back home. It’s gotta make sense here. There are ways of crafting sound and image to pull people through.
Rail: This question of audience is interesting—his notion of mainstream culture versus experimental media and documentary. They tend to form certain camps. How do you balance those impulses while making the film? How do you balance what people can follow, or tolerate?
Zack: The weird thing is (back home anyways) movies are huge. Everyone’s got a basement filled with VHS tapes. There’s actually a lot of film literacy. People can hang with stuff. Perhaps a lot is just the tone with which you’re saying things—we’re including the people back home, trying to represent and tell the story collectively. That’s allowed us to get away with some of the more experimental stuff. But we’re not thinking about documentary, experimental, narrative, but trying to make it a film. It could be all those things.
Rail: You begin with interviews and more historical and archival stuff, but there’s a certain point in the film where it’s clearly out of that realm—you move way beyond that, or into narrative, and even face different genres entirely.
Zack: Part of it, too, is the subject matter and the story we’re telling. Our work in general is to find a more Ojibway way of filmmaking. In order to do that, we have to be open to move in between things.
Rail: You’re also incorporating and contrasting lots of other elements–Brett Michaels playing the casino and remixes of old historical videos, but also kind of reenacting ceremonies with animation and green-screen sequences. This seems like a real challenge, to balance the contemporary with the traditional, to make it seem like it’s not something frozen in time.
Adam: It’s about taking those traditions and objects and moving them forward in whatever way possible, even if they change slightly. Maybe there’s different ways of disseminating them. ome of those objects have been sitting there for 200 years in that fucking archive. That doesn’t move anything forward. It has to move through people. And to understand history that’s participatory, that can change, is something that’s actually distinctly Ojibway, in a way. There’s always the culture police where you have to do certain things in certain ways--but in reality it’s just blood memory and trusting what you know and what you’ve learned.
Zack: In 1978 the American Religious Freedom Act was passed; before then you could get arrested for doing certain ceremonies depending on what reservation you were on. So there’s this history of secrecy, too, surrounding so much of traditional culture that’s really deeply embedded in how it’s dealt with, especially by elders, who have the most information.
Adam: Shame, guilt, secrecy.
Zack: Even if you’re not shameful or guilty, there’s still secrecy because you don’t want to get caught. But the traditional medicine men are more of the leaders in our tribe. Now’s the time. Secrecy is not an issue anymore. We can be open about these things. It’s become a cultural habit to be secretive about traditional things. But that’s new. It shouldn’t be that way anymore. It doesn’t have to be.
Rail: But it seems like the secrecy thing also raises the issue of appropriation. Sure, it was once a matter of shame or guilt, but now it’s a matter of keeping it from turning into an Urban Outfitters T-shirt or whatever.
Adam: This goes back to the information vs. knowledge thing. There are people that come up to our tribe all the time wanting to learn about Indians..And they just don’t get how to access that knowledge. It’s really about being around and talking and waiting for people to give you things. There’s no way to just access it. That’s not how that information ecology functions. And that was something cool about making the film. We did way too many interviews. We did, like, twenty-eight interviews.
Zack: And they’d all be like, three hours long. [Laughter]
Adam: It’s just how it rolls up there.
Zack: “Can you just introduce yourself—” and forty-five minutes later, after you got their life story, then you start asking questions.
Rail: In terms of all the different types of image formats you use, these are also inherited in a kind of material way—they linger on as physical things. Videos become shared objects, too.
Zack: The idea of using so many different formats in the film is the other part of the Ojibway way of archiving. There are more traditional records, like the birch-bark scrolls, but then video and media are other ways of documenting things from our perspective and preserving the language. These are presented alongside each other in the film as a trajectory as a way of documenting history and moving it forward.
Adam: The Seven Fires Prophecy started off as an oral story, was put on the scrolls, and was then published in a book in the ’70s [The Mishomis Book: The Voice of the Ojibway], by Eddie Benton-Banai, leader of the American Indian Movement. He was Ojibway from Minnesota. It was kind of like the Ojibway Bible, but he published it as a kids’ book, which is kind of weird. It has like coloring pages in it. It’s a really weird book.
Zack: But because of how successful the whole cultural and systematic annihilation thing was, it’s the primary source for any kind of Ojibway spiritual knowledge for adults.
Adam: And so this story has morphed through all these different forms. And I’m hesitant to say this, but maybe this film is another way to tell that now.
Zack: How to move the story into another medium.
Adam: And in Ojibway culture, there’s this figure Nanabozho, who’s kind of like Jesus. But unlike Jesus he’s kind of a fuck-up—he’s always getting himself into trouble. He’s kind of a trickster or a clown type of character, and that’s a way of working through these questions in his trickster way, where you’re trying to shake things up to see what’s really there. That’s an approach that was really important for us to incorporate into the film—to mix the sacred and the profane. Because there’s a lot of cultural policing. People start talking Indian. There’s a performative element to it.
Zack: Start talkin’ reeeaaal slooow. Say “path” a lot. Yeah, so you’re able to make fun of stuff to a certain extent—a lot of space for humor, but also exploring taboos.
Adam: And talking about what everyone’s afraid to talk about at least within our community. Like what does it mean to be Ojibway in the 21st century? People are scared shitless of that question—because they don’t know. But I also think a lot of local dysfunction stems from the avoidance of that question—like the fucked-up politics of our town and the backwards business and the corruption is coming from a really broken place.
Zack: And can you ask honestly how much of our traditional ways of life and knowing are left to build off of? Just seriously asking that question and thinking about it. It’s not something that happens very often, but it’s important.