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American Dreams 

The world's oldest event dedicated to Native American cinema

Wednesday, Nov 3 2004
The American Indian Film Festival is the world's oldest event dedicated to Native American cinema. Its 29th edition opens this week with a program full of documentaries -- topics include mustang horses and the 1973 Wounded Knee uprising -- plus features such as On the Corner, about troubled urban teens, and The Reawakening, which follows a successful attorney back to his home reservation, an offer in hand to represent casino interests.

The hot topic of Indian gaming also frames the documentary The Rules of the Game, by Monica Lam and Garance Burke, which plays with The Reawakening on Monday: A tribe's plan to build a casino in a Rohnert Park pasture rouses virulent opposition, with antagonists dressing up as cows to campaign against it, resting their signs on their fake udders.

One of the Indians interviewed by Lam and Burke in this even-handed film speaks gleefully about how casino money will allow him to buy some nice trucks, or "a big trailer with a lot of Harleys on it." Others speak of past oppression: "We are not your noble savages," says one angry woman. All seem anxious to "participate in the American dream of capitalism," as a third puts it. The casino's foes, meanwhile, swerve from emotional opposition to gambling and traffic to contorted racial arguments that make them look foolish. In the end, the promise of sharing the money with the city carries the day. At movie's end, the casino seems unstoppable, and only time will tell if all the members of the tribe, much less Rohnert Park, will benefit -- and if gambling really is a pathway into the American dream.

One more American dream, the shopping mall, is the contemporary setting for another good documentary, Andres Cediel's Shellmound, screening on Sunday. What is currently the Bay Street Center in Emeryville was in the past home for Ohlone Indians, who left behind a mountain of shells to mark their passing. Cediel skillfully traces the fate of this shellmound, site of an amusement park a hundred years ago -- captured on film in Erich von Stroheim's Greed -- and then a paint factory. The company's ochre left the ground "an orange blob" and toxic chemicals in the ground had "made the bones rubbery" when workmen discovered and anthropologists began unearthing the human remains of Ohlone buried in the shellmound in the 1990s. The thousand-year-old bones disturbed by mall construction were reburied elsewhere, and the rest of the mound was unceremoniously paved over. Bay Street Center now stands atop this mass grave, which appalls one Ohlone interviewed by Cediel. But another is cheerful: He feels the mall serves the same social function as the old shellmound meeting places. After all, he shopped for his Christmas gifts there. The American dream lives.

About The Author

Gregg Rickman


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