Terra incognita for most Americans, indigenous filmmaking remains fraught with possibility for the adventurous moviegoer. Beyond the self-evident anthropological appeal lingers the hope, however faint, of a return to some prelapsarian age devoid of Hollywood formula, the dream of what J. Hoberman, reviewing 2002’s Inuit epic The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) in these pages, called “the rebirth of cinema.” MOMA’s “First Nations/First Features” brings back that landmark, showing here alongside 24 other features and shorts produced by indigenous peoples from the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific.
A decidedly mixed bag, the series does offer one neglected gem—Tracey Moffatt’s cinematically adventurous Bedevil (1993) is a triptych of ghost stories rendered as oblique horror comedy. All three episodes build to a steady simmer as Moffatt, an Australian aboriginal woman, ratchets up the tension with disorienting temporal jumps and unsettling off-screen sounds, but never allows the suspense to explode into action. Her radical vision turns the Western horror tradition on its head by locating the supernatural not in the exoticized primitive but in the encroachment of European civilization. This insider-outsider dynamic asserts itself formally via recurring aerial shots and characters who speak directly to the camera.
A more traditional exercise in mythmaking, the Oscar-nominated Norwegian vengeance drama Pathfinder (1987) was the first feature made in the Sami language. Based, like Atanarjuat, on a nearly millennium-old legend, this snowbound folktale proves notable mainly for its forbidding landscapes. Another self-consciously mythic work—there’s a birth, a wedding, and a funeral—Maori director Merata Mita’s obliquely edited Mauri (1988) begins as a hazy swirl of poorly acted romantic intrigue and free-floating nature imagery. Set in the 1950s, the drama loses steam as its contrived interracial-love-triangle story becomes clearer—a vague subplot about stolen land and tensions between the Maori and New Zealand’s government remains frustratingly opaque, at least for the uninitiated.
The 1991 Te Rua tackles the legacy of colonial-era thievery head-on: A group of Maori artists agitates for the return of three carvings currently residing in a Berlin museum, eventually provoking a confrontation with German police. The movie rightly takes the Maori’s right to their ancestral art as a moral given, but the forced happy ending lets filmmakers and audience off the hook by dodging the question of how far is too far to go in the pursuit of justice.