On the Pine Ridge reservation, Johnny dreams of leaving home, while his little sister Jashaun dreams of a better life for the family on the reservation. Chloe Zhao captures the spirit of the Lakota even as she captures the universal need to leave home. •Availability: Opens New York City Film Forum, March 2. •Thanks to Adam Walker for arranging this interview. •
DT: How did you come to be on the Pine Ridge reservation in the first place?
CZ: I usually start out with the line I wish I had an amazing spiritual story for you, but I don’t. It was kind of by chance. I was researching a film in North Dakota, Devil’s Lake, where there are a lot of reservations as well. The concept of people living on a reservation, and the idea that there’s a line there and it’s a sovereign nation, and that’s where people call their home, is a really interesting concept to me. So I started researching more about reservations, and Pine Ridge is kind of the ground zero of all the struggles the reservations face. Around that time teen suicide was declared an epidemic. That was quite personal for me, so a couple of things combined together, and I just decided to take a trip there, abandon the film in North Dakota, and see if there was anything for me on Pine Ridge. I took that trip and the rest is history.
DT: How did the film come about?
CZ: The way I work is to gather as much information as I possibly can and try to figure out if there’s a story for me to tell. There are many intriguing and complex stories, but the one I was interested in was how these young people have such a dilemma about their identification toward their home and their very complex relationship with the land they live on; whether they want to stay or leave, what it means to cope with home. I myself have the polar opposite experience from the Lakota. I come from Communist China. I left when I was young, and I’ve been kind of drifting and not really identifying anyplace as home. That was something I wanted to explore, so the story line of a young man having to decide whether he’s going to leave or stay and what the consequences might be became the story.
I wrote the script for three years. I went through a bunch of labs, wrote thirty different drafts and did the casting, spending most of my time on the reservation, and then I couldn’t get money for that movie. I couldn’t get anybody to invest in the film with all these nonactors and me as a first-time female Asian filmmaker making a Native American film. A lot of my kids were growing up real fast, and I ended up having to let go of that script. I shot Songs My Brothers Taught Me with a treatment and a tenth of the budget.
DT: How was shooting without a script?
CZ: I probably wouldn’t do it again. I always joked that we were trying to capture truth because truth was the only thing we could afford. We had no money to stage anything. We couldn’t pay for production design or try to honor the plotty stuff I had in my script. The upside is that the limitation of shooting without a script forced me to accept what was in front of me. That turned out to be a great thing for the authenticity of the film. The downside is when you go into the editing room. We spent a whole year editing. We were really starting over, because it was in the editing room that we tried to figure out exactly what this film was. So there are pros and cons.
DT: That’s frequently the way documentaries work, and there was certainly a documentary feeling about the film. Was that intentional?
CZ: Like I said, truth is the only thing we could afford. It wasn’t intentional to say, Let’s shoot real events, let’s improvise—that came out of limitation. What was intentional? I’d gotten to know my cast really well by then, and I would try to get them to say and express whatever I wrote in a way that was authentic to them. I got the main thread of Johnny and Jashaun’s relationship and the fact that he stays in the end—that was clear in my head most of the time. Every morning I would write the script based on what we got the night before. And I would meet with my cast in the morning and say, How would you say this? Where do you think this should take place? Sometimes we would go to a location where we knew something like this could happen, whether it was a rodeo, a protest, a school, a prison. Sometimes we’d just improvise interesting things, like aspects of daily life that people outside haven’t seen before or details more plotty films ignore. I would try to include that and then get the story in there. That would be the intentional process.
DT: This is not a criticism, but there seems to be much more focus on the negative aspect of their lives than the positive.
CZ: I kind of disagree with that, but that’s a personal opinion, because if you had been there… The Native American audience is the easiest, because when you watch these things that they go through, it’s like their daily lives. To someone who lives in New York it’s so tragic and negative, but it’s important to me to be truthful, because why bother? Especially if I want to tell stories about a young person like Johnny or Jashaun, and their struggles. Why are these young people taking their lives? For me to sugar-coat it is not the right thing to do. Most importantly, I’m not showing the worst stuff. I have tons of footage if I want to really, really play that card, but I wouldn’t do that. I think I’m finding some kind of middle ground, because I do see the responsibility.
Hopefully one day there will be many different types of Native American characters in our media. You would never say, Do you feel your film only shows the negative aspects of New York City? You wouldn’t ask that because there are so many representations of people who live in New York, where it’s all white people, but you say that about Native Americans because we don’t see enough of them. Every time somebody makes something the stakes are so high. And that’s the bigger problem. I have plenty to say about that as well.
DT: How was the film received on the reservation?
CZ: That’s my favorite time to screen—not just on the reservation but any Native community. We’ve screened at many different Native reservations, three of the largest Native American festivals in the country, and we won a bunch of awards there: two best directors, best actress from the American Indian Film Institute and Red Nation Film Institute. Once in a while at a Q&A there’s somebody—it’s usually a liberal white audience—that says, “You see them drinking beer and screwing, blah, blah blah,” but Jashaun and I and a lot of people end up in tears when Native audiences come up and say, “That reminds me of my grandfather or my son, or me.” I wouldn’t try to make them into some kind of PG thing the mainstream audience can digest and feel comfortable with. That is not me spending almost five years doing this. I moved to Denver so I could be close to them. That’s not why I spent that big chunk of my life being there, that’s not what I would do.
DT: Tell me about your use of music.
CZ: I was very fortunate because I did a Sundance Composers Lab, and the director of the music program and I really had a connection. I asked him to compose music for us, and I told him that we didn’t want the music to feel not of the place; we wanted it to feel like when you walk alone on the plains, by yourself and you see the storms are coming. We wanted the music to have that lonely sense of simple melody. We assigned a melody to Jashaun, one to their father, and one to Johnny. Since we shot without a script, we tried to repeat those to help bring out emotional consistency. We tried to use it as a tool but at the same time make sure that it felt like part of the place. We also tried to do a play on the old Westerns strings as well. We tried to make that raw sound of the strings a little gentler for Jashaun.
DT: To what extent were you welcomed into the Native American culture?
CZ: Culture or community?
CZ: Culture in the sense of a traditional ceremony?
CZ: I’ve been to all of them. Some I can’t take photos, and some I can. The Lakotas are very welcoming. There are other tribes that traditionally might be a little more conservative, but the Lakotas really embrace outsiders, and they want to share their stories and their experiences. Look, I’m Chinese. I look like I’m part of the community. I think that really helped. I have not actually participated as a sun dancer, but I’ve been to quite a few. And I’ve been to a lot of powwows. I met Jashaun at a Veteran’s Day powwow.
I found the Lakota culture not in traditional ceremonies but in daily things. When I was teaching in one the schools, instead of singing the National Anthem, they sing a Lakota national anthem. Very beautiful. I went to a funeral and loved just the way they celebrated a soul departing and how the community comes together. They sang “Amazing Grace” in Lakota. Even when I went to a Christian church—regardless of how you feel about a Wounded Knee Christian church—the pastor, who is Lakota, talked about struggles and trying to bring Lakota culture and the Bible together. I see it in everybody’s daily lives, and that’s something that’s still so strong. t doesn’t belong to the past. It belongs to the present.
DT: Do you see this as a political film or a personal film?
CZ: I like to think it’s a personal film, but I can’t stop what other people are thinking. I studied American politics undergrad, where I focused on racial relations, so I think everything I make probably by default is somewhat socially relevant. There are so many great documentaries out there, and there’s so much information about all the issues Pine Ridge and Native Americans go through today, but for this film I wanted to make something that doesn’t talk about how different their experiences are but try to find something that we have in common. When I was screening in Cannes, people came up to me and said, “That reminds me of growing up in a small village in the south of France and having to figure out if I’m going to leave my family or not.” My Chinese parents, who barely spoke English, were crying through the movie because they understood the relationship with the mother and my leaving them. That to me is the power of fiction, because it does not allow the audience to necessarily sit there and say, Oh, this is terrible, this is suffering, I feel bad but this is their issue. If we’re successful, we at least try—I’m not saying we necessarily did it, but we at least tried—to have you not be able to not identify with someone like Johnny and Jashaun and their mother and at the same time talk about what’s specific to the Native American experience.
DT: Is there anything you want to add?
CZ: This is not supposed to represent all Native Americans on a reservation or all of Pine Ridge or all young people on Pine Ridge. I really hope one day we’ll get to a place where there are all different types of Native American characters in our mainstream media: romantic comedies, Breaking Bad–like dramas, sci-fi, all complex Native American characters. I really hope for that one day.
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