The silvery images of faces from a lost world dissolve into one another, faces with lines deep as arroyos and expressions that might suggest bitter resignation. Their gazes hint at some antagonism toward the camera. These old stills of Native Americans, taken more than a hundred years ago by Edward S. Curtis, compose the opening sequence of The Exiles, accompanied by the steady beating of a drum. They serve as context, the first part of a jarring entrée into Kent Mackenzie’s stark yet lively portrait of Native American youth in Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill district, circa 1961. The drum and traditional grooming gives way to rock and roll and pompadours, the images of plains to multistoried apartment blocks, broad avenues, bars and gas stations, and cramped, crowded flats where a radio or television always plays. That primordial drum will return however near the end of the film, though when it does it undercuts hoots and hollers, singing and laughter, honking horns, squashed beer cans, and girls asking to be left alone.
The juxtaposition between old ways and modern cacophony is de rigueur in aboriginal histories, but it appears here absent of forced pathos, a necessary prelude to a story placed firmly in the present rather than eulogizing the past. But this narrative of change and loss works on a number of levels. The film is also a study of Bunker Hill itself, once a zone of affluence and opulence that, by the time Mackenzie and his crew of fellow film school grads arrived to capture it, had already began its descent into postwar neglect and decay. Mackenzie had already made a controversial short in the neighbourhood while still at the University of Southern California entitled ‘Bunker Hill – 1956.’ But The Exiles was something still more ambitious, a distinctive construction of voice-over testaments concerning the inner lives of three Bunker Hill Native Americans and re-enactments featuring the actual subjects. The use of non-professional actors, or rather people being asked to “play” themselves, is elegantly executed, and looks forward to other such fusions of documentary and fiction filmmaking techniques from the likes of Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf, to name but one prominent example.
So The Exiles is a very special film, and a landmark in the American cinema’s reflection on its own marginalized at the very least. Yet, following a triumphant premiere at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, the film failed to secure commercial distribution and became a sort of legend, a film with a reputation vastly overwhelming its viewership. It’s prominent role in Thom Anderson’s 2003 compilation documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself sparked the latest resurgence of interest, prompting a theatrical release from Milestone Films, the same company that ushered Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep into theatres 30 years after its completion. Burnett himself, along with Sherman Alexie, supervised the restoration, courtesy of Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the belated release. The Exiles had its Canadian premiere at the Cinematheque Ontario last November, 47 years after its completion, Sadly, it was also 28 years after Mackenzie’s death.
The first disembodied voice to emerge in The Exiles is that of Yvonne (Yvonne Williams). She’s young, lovely, desperate and pregnant. The imminent child is the bright spot in her strained existence. Her husband Homer (Homer Nash) seems disinterested and cuts a dubious figure as a supporting patriarch. “He might change if he sees the baby,” she says at one point. “He likes children.” She returns home from the market and cooks up some pork chops and beans for Homer and his pals, who only vaguely acknowledge her. Soon the night comes and Yvonne is dropped at the movies while the boys go out for a long of night of drinking, gambling and wandering.
Homer himself picks up the film’s ongoing chain of voice-over once the night’s activities begin. He speaks of his restlessness and desire for some excitement, maybe get into a fight or something. How strange then, and compelling, that the Homer we see contrasts the Homer we hear, as well as the Homer Yvonne describes. While his friends become increasingly wild in their behaviour, Homer seems to get only more quiet, ending the night wrapped in a blanket and keeping to himself. At one point he discusses his upbringing back in rural Arizona, his childhood spent asking for money from white tourists snapping photos of the local Indians.
Rounding out the voice-over subjects is Tommy (Tommy Reynolds), a slick dancer and would-be ladies’ man. He figures white people have more problems than Indians, what with so much on their minds. He validates his unruly behaviour by its purity—when he parties, he parties right. He also becomes belligerent and rough with unwilling women. Yet there’s something poignant in the scene where he plays air piano on a wooden countertop in a bar along to some boogie-woogie, and the sense that this is the closest he ever comes to giving vent to a genuine talent.
The Exiles is all the more affecting and fascinating for its crispness, emphasis on observation over overt analysis, and its lack of sentimentality. Though presented with the nuance, textured imagery and rhythms of a fiction film, it gains considerable spontaneity and diversion from its documentary foundations. Especially intriguing is a strange scene where some white guy dances with a Chinese guy in a bar. But what makes the film gel so marvelously is its emphasis on people’s relationship to place. The subjects are people displaced in their own country—they are internal exiles. Mackenzie photographs them in such a way that they are never without context, without their surroundings looming over or around them, tacitly posing questions about where it is they think they belong. The scene of bleary morning stumbling home that ends the film promises renewal, but of what sort? What has changed? 50 years later, the questions linger in the air after the lights go down.