The white world is largely in the dark about native culture. So many people alongside each other who really don't know much about each other ... I was very curious about the reservation, like, who are those people?So said Courtney Hunt, writer and director of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize Winner Frozen River, opening this Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
I've paid close attention to this movie's progress from festival circuit to upcoming wide release, and caught an early screening at Brooklyn’s BAM Cinema two months ago. Having worked as a reporter in the particular nook of the US-Canadian border [click map at left to enlarge] that includes the Mohawk territory Akwesasne and the nearby town of Massena, I once spent much of my daily life on the project of portraying the movie’s locale, a place that rarely makes a blip on America's cultural radar, to say the least. Of course, I was understandably excited to see how Hunt, along with her cast and crew, had managed the task.
Even without this connection to northern New York and Mohawk territory, I’d have taken note of Frozen River. The film follows a poor white mother over several December weeks as she becomes a reluctant, then enthusiastic, accomplice in immigrant-smuggling across Akwesasne. This subject matter makes Frozen River a double rarity in American cinema—first, attempting a realistic, complicated portrayal of a poor, white woman in the protagonist Ray Eddy and, second, depicting the lives of contemporary native people.
The fact that Ray is white has important consequences for her experience of poverty. In a movie peppered with desperately poor women of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds, Ray is, materially, the best-off of this lot. She lives in a house trailer with her two sons, a step up from the tiny uninsulated camper of her Mohawk accomplice, Lila, who has coerced Ray into working with her because a white woman traversing the reservation is less likely to arouse the suspicions of state troopers. "You're white," she explains when Ray asks why Lila doesn't just drive the carload of smuggled people herself. Later, this fact of whiteness surfaces again in the most melodramatic scene of the movie, in which Ray must cope with the consequences of her bigotry. As the critics have duly noted, Melissa Leo’s performance as Ray is stand-out.
Yet, when it comes to depicting the realities of race for other people, Hunt’s film is far less successful. Pakistani and Chinese migrants appear only as smuggled goods, rendered homeless, nationless, and, ultimately, storyless, as we learn nothing of their lives or thoughts. But the representations of Akwesasne Mohawks, “those people” whom Hunt sought to discover and reveal, are perhaps even worse than silence.
Hunt is fascinated by the exotic adventure of driving across a borderland expanse of ice with living contraband in the trunk, as she has noted in several interviews. And when it comes to portraying native people, it is this exciting image that interests her, rather than the complications of a unique community of native people, its particular concerns (including competing views on the legitimacy of "smuggling"), and how its members relate to one another. Instead, the native characters we meet are all individuals who interact with the white protagonist, and whose lives we know about almost solely as they affect hers.
That's too bad, because Akwesasane is rich with dramatic historic, political, and cultural stories, and Hunt ignored all that context and complexity for the cheaper thrill of a generic exotic setting, the inner-workings of which stay mysterious.
So you can't blame the real-life folks at Akwesasne for the less-than-open arms with which they've greeted the movie. Though the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council (the government on the U.S. side of Akwesasne) granted Hunt permission by a vote of 2-1 to shoot her original short film on the territory in 2004, the crew went to Plattsburgh, 70 miles away, when it was time to shoot the feature. During the post-screening Q & A in Brooklyn, Hunt said that Plattsburgh had better infrastructure for a full-scale production, which I'm sure is true. However, I've also been told by two separate sources that Hunt asked for permission to do some filming for the feature on Mohawk land and was denied. And to my knowledge, Akwesasne Mohawks were not included on the production as cast or crew. One imagines they might have caught the false notes that battered my ears, such as when characters were addressed with stereotypical Indian last names like Two Rivers and Littlewolf that simply do not exist at Akwesasne.
Ultimately, I'm disappointed in this lack of interest in the specificities of the place she claimed to want to know and the unwillingness to engage the community she depicts. Most viewers, I fear, will leave the movie just as they came in -- sensitive and sympathetic, but still in the dark.
[Editorial note: This one was written by Lizzie B.]