Active Culture: "INAATE/SE" meditates on Sault Ste. Marie's Ojibway tribe
Adam and Zach Khalil’s [http://www.inaatese.com|INAATE/SE] is not a film to view if you’re looking for escapism. INAATE/SE is about the Ojibway community in Sault Ste. Marie and the movie bends and flexes filmmaking conventions and linear storytelling in order to tell about this tribe’s past and present as well as ask questions about its future. This film will make you think about our relationship to time and history, about the stories we tell, and the stories that are silenced.
On Wednesday, Oct. 11, Ypsilanti Experimental Space (YES) screened followed INAATE/SE, followed by a Q&A with Adam Khalil. The day before, Khalil was generous enough to meet me at Henry Ford Museum and spend a portion of his afternoon talking with me about his film and his process, opening himself up to an organic and wide-ranging conversation centered in this work. He allowed us to think together for a moment. We talked about survival, representation, what it meant for him and his brother to create this work and how, in some ways, both the past and the future live within us in the present.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
“Tradition is something that’s historical. Culture is something that active, dynamic, can change, and should change.” --Adam Khalil
Q: The setup for this interview is the funniest thing. A black lady and a Native American man meet at the Henry Ford Museum to talk about culture, storytelling and who owns history.
Q: And how museums have some fraught practices. What do you wish people would ask you as they engage with your material?
A: I know the questions that I don’t want to be asked.
Q: What are those?
A: Really the stuff that always drives me nuts is when people want to talk about the environment.
Q: But your movie’s not about the environment.
A: I know! We just screened in Toronto and we did this really great Q&A with Bonnie Divine who is this awesome Ojibway artist. She’s this older woman who’s really cool, and there was all of this talk about contemporary indigenous identity and stuff like that, and this well-intentioned hippie white lady afterward was like, “Thanks so much for doing that. I think that it’s cool that your people have a special connection with the environment.” I was like, “That’s a huge generalization.” And she was like, “But, yeah, it’s a good one.” And I’m like, “You just didn’t listen to what we said for 45 minutes about these kinds of generalizations." She’s like: "No, you don’t understand; I’m saying something good." I’m like: "No. You don’t understand. We talked for 45 minutes and you heard nothing."
That’s the stuff that really makes my blood boil. Like, why am I talking if you just want something specific out of this? So, in terms of questions that we’d want to be asked, we’re pretty open. The film has a lot in it. We’re trying to say a lot to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways all at once.
Q: Who do you see your audiences being?
A: This is something that me and my brother thought a lot about making the film, trying to figure out a way to code the film that could communicate different things to many different audiences. Personally, we have an investment in the documentary, experimental, and art film communities in and around New York. But the film was made first and foremost for our tribe back home. And then, Native people in general. But also we were trying to find this sweet spot where it wasn’t hermetic and it could be assessable or approachable. We like thinking of our work as Trojan horse-y. You know, having enough sugar to make the medicine go down.
So, that’s what took the most time in making the film. Figuring out what are we communicating to whom and how are we doing it. Because there’s also this weird thing with indigenous communities where there’s this history of being an informant on your own culture and not wanting to play that role in terms of giving up too much. A big thing, also, in thinking about the film is the difference between information and knowledge.
Q: Talk to me about that.
A: This is popular in indigenous information ecologies. The idea is that information should be for all and that’s good, but knowledge is something that has to be earned or given. It has a different kind of cultural currency. And there’s such a history of ethnographers and anthropologists trying to extract knowledge from our communities. So we wanted to be really sure to be careful to not do that work for them.
There are metaphors and allegories that form the film, like the pills for the sacred medicines, which is a McGuffin; it’s not real. We didn’t want to ethnographically show our actual ceremonies because that not knowledge that we felt that we should be giving up. But the information in terms of the stories, the history, and the place we felt was really important to share.
Q: What responsibility do you feel as somebody who has done whatever work you did to get to the point where you’ve got this voice? What does that mean for you?
A: It’s a huge amount of responsibility. It’s something that my brother and I really think a lot about and we’ve built it into our practice. These kinds of speed bumps to make sure that we’re not going too far, too fast without the rest of our community on board.
Q: What does that process look like?
A: In terms of the speed bumps and making sure we don’t go too far, we did way too many interviews with no specific goal. We did like 40 interviews. Each was two to four hours a pop.
Q: That is a lot of investment.
A: Yeah. It made the editing process really tricky. And maybe there are eight people that are interviewed who are in the film. We interviewed everyone else because we didn’t want to come in and dictate what the film was about. And that’s why this story, "The Seven Fires Prophecy," is perfect. It allowed for enough openness that we could use it as a structure to hang things on, but not pre-determine what we needed to make it a good film or a real film.
Q: When I watched your movie, I found myself wondering what white people think when they watch it. Then, I was immediately mad at myself because I felt like even I put white people at the center of everything.
A: We thought about that making it. Especially because with these esoteric film communities it’s predominantly white. Being in experimental film is like the most white of white. And that’s changing though, too. You can see it in the people who are getting programmed and what’s being celebrated now. It’s actually really exciting. There’s a really great filmmaker, Sky Hopinka, he’s indigenous, and finding Sky’s stuff and being able to meet him talk with him and think about film in these formal ways, but also the content and the responsibility that we have as Native filmmakers too has also been really empowering and has made me feel more sane.
Q: So, this is a question that I always want to ask other people of color: Do you feel like you get to enjoy your culture?
A: Well, I’ve got a pretty complicated background. I’m half Egyptian. I wasn’t really raised with the Egyptian stuff. My dad was sort of out of the picture. So it’s being raised in Sault Ste. Marie. To complicate it further, my mother moved us up there when I was 10.
Q: Really. Where were you before then?
A: I lived in Boston and for a little time in Cairo with my dad.
Q: What years were you in Sault Ste. Marie?
A: I believe it was like 10 until finishing high school. So that’s like all of my formative experiences there, too. My mom moved us up there because she wanted us to connect with the culture and she was like, “The rest of the world is pretty fucked; I’m gonna get you guys back in.”
Our mother passed away about four years ago and it was really important to her for us to reconnect there or make a connection there because we weren’t born there. For us, the act of making the film was a way for us to reintroduce ourselves to the community. And to be like, “Hey, we’re from here. Our mother isn’t here anymore, but now we’re our own selves. We’re individuals. We’re not just her children, and we still want to be a part of this community."
Q: What is it like to work with your brother on a creative project? And you’ve kind of grabbed the torch from your mom, right? Because she was doing this research and trying to really reclaim the story.
A: She was really specifically trying to build in safeguards for indigenous agency in museums and library science practices. And she ran youth education activities for the tribe for 10 years. Also, the tribal politics are pretty gnarly, so to keep a job anywhere in that tribe, or in any tribe, gets pretty tricky quickly. But she meant a lot to a lot of people, and our place was like an open space. Where there were constantly people from the community coming in and out and it was almost an extension of it in some kind of way.
Q: Do you view this as a family project?
A: Big time. I think it’s a collaboration with our mother. Also, our aunt shot some of this stuff that’s in the movie, like the stuff in the boarding schools. She was doing the Ojibway language intensive at Bay Mills Community College and she was also coming from a film background. She was like, “I filmed this.” And I found the tape after she took us to visit that site in the present day. All of these weird family coincidences kept popping up. So it only makes sense also for me to make it with my brother.
Q: Who are your influences?
A: Craig Baldwin is this guy who has been running this microcinema in San Francisco. He makes these really insane paranoid, political montage films from found footage stuff. He made this feature film called Tribulation 99 which is about the CIA’s intervention in Latin America as if the CIA was an alien race.
It’s also using the apparatus of storytelling to talk about real politics with something that really just got me hooked and is also an inherently Ojibway form of communicating. Look, Walter Benjamin has this thing about the angel of history that always moves forward but looks back at the destruction. It’s a very western notion or conception of history. Whereas an Ojibway version of it would be the "Seven Fires" prophecy where it’s an oral story that’s meant to change over time so it’s not this monolithic tower of history. It has this malleability and that the story should always be in service to the present moment or the people’s needs at that time.
That’s a really empowering understanding of history. History is a story that we tell ourselves. And so to be able to assert one’s own knowledge of how that history functions and literally change the history through narrative and storytelling devices just opened up this whole new way of thinking for us. And these stories have deep ideologies embedded within them.
Q: And they have purposes and they have things that they’re intending to communicate. And they change. And things aren’t getting told. And things are getting told. People get mad if you even try to tell a story that messes with their story.
A: I mean Columbus Day was yesterday. And the stuff with the statues. "Heritage not hate" is the slogan they’re throwing around.
Q: See, I have so many mixed feelings about the statues. I feel like when you think about the idea of a post-racial America that people were talking about several years ago, that’s crazy to me because it’s like, “Mmmm ... that’s not where I live."
A: Yeah. This idea that we’re all one is nice but to actually have to get that point there’d have to be an actual equality.
Q: But it’s just not a lived reality
A: And properly equitably dispersed and I feel like that’s not there.
Q: And I feel like a rush to burn and destroy all of these statues in some ways is dangerous because ...
A: There’s an erasure of the problematic history of the foundation of this country.
Q: And I think that it’s just a dangerous thing to play with.
A: It’s a slippery slope for sure.
Q: People want to have a story where it’s a neat story and with a beginning, middle, and end.
Q: It’s like, what do you lose? What do you lose by thinking about the fact that other people have experiences and stories?
A: One thing that’s happening these days that I find really scary is this notion of empathy construction.
Q: Talk to me more about that.
A: I feel like there’s real limits to empathy. Empathy is always relating someone else’s experience to oneself as opposed to approaching it in a more humble way where it’s actually just listening to someone’s experiences and not trying to say, "Oh, now I understand it." Those things can’t be understood or communicated. Since the stuff at Standing Rock, where everyone’s so empathetic to indigenous causes but still can’t get to the point where they’re acknowledging that this other colonial state still exists in this way. Or this desire for indigeneity because they feel so empathetic toward indigenous causes. And this happens with other groups, too.
Q: Where’s the line between empathy and an attempted possession?
A: I think that they’re kind of the same thing because you create empathy in relation to someone’s outside story for trying to understand it from your inside story. But it’s all about the self at that time, too. As opposed to literally coming at it from a more humble experience and just listening. And not saying I get it now. Or I know what this person or this history is about. You can’t really internalize those things unless you’ve come from that place.
Q: What have your audiences looked like?
A: It’s interesting. We’ve done big museums. We’ve done big film festivals. But then we’ve also toured a lot of schools and community centers. And also microcinemas, the whole gamut. It always varies, and again in terms of how we’ve tried to code the film in terms of what we’re communicating to what group all at the same time. ... I was just at Cranbrook and it was all art students and they were much more interested in the formal stuff.
Q: Like your artistic choices
A: Yeah, and that’s cool because we thought a lot about that stuff, so it’s great to have that engaged with. But then showing it to an Ojibway middle school on the res, we’re talking about the importance of these stories and how they resonate in the contemporary moment. And how these young people can continue to tell these stories in their own voice. So it really varies with the context of what the screening is. But for us, it’s really meaningful because the film doesn’t really exist or function unless it’s engaged with. And independent filmmaking sucks. There’s no apparatus to really support it, so that’s part of the reason we’ve been touring the movie to create that there’s an actual connection one at a time.
Q: Everything that I read about this film talked a lot about how it was not linear. I was expecting that maybe it wasn’t going to be accessible. I thought that this might be the time that I bit off more than I can chew. And then I felt pressure, as a person of color interviewing a person of color, wanting to do a good and respectful job, to do this right. Then I watched the movie and was like, "Oh, OK. Accessible film."
A: That means a lot. Seriously. We want to make movies. WE don’t want to make documentaries. We don’t want to make experimental film. We don’t want to make these things that have limits to access. Everyone watches movies. Everyone knows the language of movies.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at [http://sherlonya.net|sherlonya.net].
"[http://www.inaatese.com|INAATE/SE]" Fall 2017 Tour Dates:
Oct. 16 - Grand Rapids, MI | Grand Valley State University
Oct. 19 - New York City | UnionDocs (w/ Karrabing Film Collective and Elizabeth Povinelli)
Oct. 26 - Thunder Bay, ON | Confederation College
Oct. 26 - Thunder Bay, ON | Docs on Bay
Nov. 1 - Northfield, MN | Carleton College
Nov. 2 - Northfield, MN | St. Olaf College
Nov. 4 - St. Paul, MN | East Side Freedom Library
Nov. 5 - Minneapolis, MN | Cellular Cinema
Nov. 6 - Minneapolis, MN | University of Minnesota
Nov. 7 - Minneapolis, MN | Hamline University
Nov. 8 - Minneapolis, MN | Augsburg College
Nov. 9 - St. Paul, MN | Macalester College
Nov. 15 - New York City, NY | CUNY Grad Center
Nov. 17 - Philadelphia, PA | Lightbox Film Center
Nov. 20 - Annapolis, MD | US Naval Academy