Chris Eyre interview by Melissa Bisagni, October 2008
MB: I am curious, how long you have known about the Film
and Video Center (FVC) and the film festival?
CE: I met Elizabeth through the Film and Video Center
in 1992, when they were on 155th Street. I went up there, met
her and just started to talk to her about Native film when I first
got to New York....I think [the festival] is great; the Film and
Video Center is like second to nothing else in the country for
filmmakers and archiving indigenous work from the hemisphere;
it is pretty unique.
MB: What was your first film that showed here at the museum?
CE: I think the first movie of mine that showed here was
Tenacity...Thief of Time and Skins we premiered
Smoke Signals we did the premiere here at the
Smithsonian, so there has been a relationship that's been really
great over the years.
MB: From your experience with the festival in past years,
do you feel there is a difference now, has there been an evolution?
CE: I think the biggest evolution that I've seen is that
there are so many Native filmmakers now. Maybe it is just because
the FVC has shown us all these different people by searching them
out in South America and Central America, Canada and the US, but
it does seem like there are more Native filmmakers then ever.
When I came to New York in '92, I remember the handful of Native
filmmakers who were in the countryGeorge Burdeau, Phil Lucas,
Sandy Osawa, Ava Hamilton, Dean Bear Claw, Victor Masayesva and
probably a few othersthat was really the mainstay of documentary
Native American cinema.
Dances with Wolves and all those movies made a lot people
say they wanted to be Native actors, and I guess, at the same
time, it grew [to include] Native filmmakers. It seems like it
has been growing rapidly and steadily, and it's fun to see what
everybody is doing. It seems like if you sit on a festival or
programming panel every couple years you get a new group of people
that are really talented, and it just seems to keep growing, which
MB: When you started working in the 1990s almost everyone
worked in documentary film, and you, of course, have been working
in narrative fiction since the beginning of your career. How do
you feel about the work that the young Native narrative filmmakers
are doing now?
CE: I remember telling non-Native people that I made films,
and they'd always take a pause and stare deep at you and say,
"You mean documentaries?" There was some strange idea
that all we could do was make documentaries. Docs are probably
my favorite form just because the proximity to reality is so much
closer then narrative. In narrative that is what you are going
for, but in documentary
you are actually seeing a piece of
reality in all its forms, and I love that. I love that sense of
I got into narrative feature just because I was raised on narrative
features, like Little House on the Prairie, if you call
that a narrative feature. Now it seems as though it is shifting,
and the generational thing is that people are making more narrative
work. I wonder how the work is going to be different; we see a
lot of work that is from the north
there is a huge movement
of northern Canadian aboriginal stories, it seems like we're seeing
a huge explosion in the past couple of years after The Fast
and Canada has more resources, I think, then we
do it terms of film and video support and subsidizing their film
makers, so maybe we'll continue to see that.
MB: What did you think of The Fast Runner when
you saw it for the first time?
CE: The Fast Runner is probably the most successful
Native or aboriginal commercial movie ever made. And it's an interesting
movie, it's a great movie. I laughed at certain parts, because
when I saw the guy running naked across the ice and running through
the water and running through the snow, and falling down, and
just continuing and continuing, I laughed to myself quite a bit
because I thought, "I can't get an actor to do that!"
So I know I was watching something really wonderful unfolding.
It was part culturalit wasn't actor-driven, director-driven
commercial workit was actually culturally passionate. I
realized I was watching something different
is unique and much more Native than something like Smoke Signals
or Skins. It's a real look at a culture and a language,
and stories, tribal stories. I was fascinated by The Fast Runner.
Young Native filmmakers, or older, Native filmmakers trying to
bring that authenticity to a commercial audience
kind of what the front line of war is
.For me, in order to
get work seen is a really difficult thing. I have done a few shows
for PBS recently, and I'm working in television now, but to bring
what I want to see to the screen is a whole different ordeal.
I see Native filmmakers bringing what they want to the screen,
but there is not an audience for it, so they play film festivals
and they play in vacuums a little bit. And so to merge those two
things together, I think is the whole achievement
The Fast Runner is a pretty awesome example of where I
think people want to go.
MB: In The Fast Runner you see a commitment from
the community that helps in delivering cultural specificity to
the film. Today, we saw a little of your Trail of Tears,
and it seems that you have all of these very strong Cherokee voices
in the work, not just as historians but even your actors. Was
the experience of having a culturally specific story to tell a
different experience for you?
CE: They're all culturally specific, but some of them
you dig deeper in that experience. You know, Skins was
a deep cultural experience; Tenacity is about the Onondaga,
and it is a metaphorthey're just different depths of that
cultural experience. I always find that we are looking for an
answer as Native filmmakers, "Ok, this is the definitive
Native movie, this is the Native movie that is going to deliver
us, this is the Native movie that will make white people understand
us, this is the one movie that [will] bring new legislation to
Congress, if they just understand this component of our history."
And there is not that one movie.
So, for me, the Cherokee movie is tied deeply to a lot of Cherokee
people, but it is not unlike the Wampanoag movie that we made
or the Absentee Shawnee movie, they just have different depths
of culture in different times and places. They are like having
children, they're experiences, journeys, and they're wonderful
things. So I can't say this one is better than this one, or this
one is more culturally relevant than this one; there are some
that I am less excited about, but they are all just kinda cool,
they are all just fun.
MB: What do you want to bring to the screen next?
CE: There are a ton of things I would like to bring to
.I would like to make a movie or a series on Native
gaming in this country
.in 1973 there was an attorney that
tested tribal sovereignty through bingo in Connecticut and that
story is 35 years old almost. So there are still stories out there
that are pretty recent that need to be told, and we're not being
allowed to tell these stories for a commercial audience. We can
make these movies and they can spend the rest of their days at
Native film festivals-and I think that is importantbut I
think we all want our work to be seen in a wider context so we
educate the people that need to be educated.
The other thing iswe've seen The Exiles recentlyI
come from that whole [era] where my grandparents were moved from
Oklahoma to Oakland and lived in the "exiles" world,
and then eventually moved to Warm Springs in Oregon
is a whole '50s and '40s look at Native people that I think is
fascinating and amazing, and to dramatize some of that '50s world
in the urban areas would be a pretty wonderful movie, too.
MB: That is definitely an interesting thing about this
festival, where there are so many different Native communities
representedsome with similar elements of history and story,
and others so different from each other.
CE: I also find that a lot of times people want to have
an all-Native crewit's like this utopiaif we just
had a Native caterer and a Native PA, and I can be the producer,
and we have the Native actor, you know-then everything would be
great. Everybody wants that definitive answer.
I don't think it's going to come in that way or that shape; there
is not going to be that perfect movie; it's going to be a community
of movies that have an overall effect. Nobody is going to make
that definitive moviethere will be some great movies-but
what we know about Indian country, it is about all of us; it's
about a community of us, and about the movement of itso,
hopefully, I'll be able to make one of those great movies, and
other people will [make others] and it will just keep going.
Chris Eyre - photograph by Tim Warner