In 1980 a 21-year-old girl by the name of Maya Lin entered a competition to design a Vietnam Veterans Memorial. With her “Monet”-like sketches and an essay that had to do more with the people in the war than the politics surrounding it she was competing against 1,441 other designers…and won! At such a young age Maya had a profound idea of death and its link to architecture and built form. With so many of the competing designers pieces focusing on specific imagery of the war or symbols of America, Maya managed to encompass the entire war and all those who fought in it with a simple yet remarkable design. Her reasoning behind listing all the names of the fallen soldiers the way that she did is something to take note of:
“The cost of war is these individuals and we have to remember them first. […] You have to accept and admit that this pain has occurred in order for it to be healed, in order for it to be cathartic.”
By creating a design where the names are listed in chronological order rather than alphabetical it adds that extra element of appreciation for each individual. As she mentioned at one point, by looking up the day in which a loved one or friend died and being able to walk up and look for it on the wall amongst the surrounding names is something a lot more special and precious. The panel deciding on the winner could have chosen any other design with the expected symbol of freedom but instead they picked this simplistic design that was dedicated to sacrifice. Overall, that is what the result of war truly is…the sacrifice that one makes by putting their life on the line. The names carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial couldn’t be a more real reminder of the sacrifices made during such a horrendous war.
This weekend I attended the California American Indian & Indigenous Film Festival at Pechanga Resort & Casino. Despite having lived in Murrieta for over ten years I have never actually visited this casino. It was a beautiful resort & casino with a high American Indian influence in both design and aesthetic. I can see why the casino is so popular amongst distant visitors. When I first stepped into the room where they would be showcasing the film I was greeted by a few volunteers who were helping to sell both art and jewelry hand designed by local American Indians. The art pieces that were on the wall were incredibly beautiful while the jewelry was so unique that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have a piece for myself. I hadn’t even stepped into the theater fully yet and I was already enjoying myself. The film that I attended was Dances with Wolves (1990) starring Kevin Costner.
Dances with Wolves is about a Civil War lieutenant who finds himself developing a relationship between a tribe of Lakota Indians. What started out as the Indians originally deeming all white men as killers trying to take their land and white men deeming Indians as “thieves or beggars” eventually turned into them respecting one another and seeing who they truly are. John Dunbar, later nicknamed Dances with Wolves by those in the tribe, is unlike any other man who fought for the Civil War. He was open minded and curious about the land that lived on. He wasn’t afraid of the Indians when they first approached him with such hostility but neither did he shoot them on the spot as the rest may have done. These rare traits of his is what made it possible for him to establish such a strong friendship between Kicking Bird, Wind in His Hair, and the rest of the tribe members.
Although this was a three hour film, which if I’m honest I was absolutely dreading once I found this out, ended up going by rather quickly once John finally encountered the Lakota’s. I was so enraptured by how they began trying to communicate with one another and how this communication progressed. It started out with a simple yet silly interpretation of a buffalo on John’s behalf, huffing at the dirt with his hands in place of horns, until this charade clicks with Kicking Bird and he says “Tatanka!” As the film progressed so did their ability to communicate. Overall, it was an incredible film and I see now why it had such high praise after its release. Finally there was a film that showcased American Indians in a more accurate light rather than one that simply stereotyped them as a whole. While there has been debate that this representation still has its flaws it is safe to say that it is still a better start than those prior.
The film The Sapphires is a true story about an Aboriginal girl band who sing for the soldiers stationed in Vietnam. I have always wanted to see this film and have actually heard of The Sapphires before but I never knew the history behind Australia’s native Aboriginal population. It is a horrid history to hear about how the fair-skinned children were taken away from their homes and families to institutions where they were passed off as white and were taught “white ways.” Each girl has their own strong personality that make the band successful and the story compelling. What started out as three girls singing country western music at a singing competition to earn a bit of cash ended up becoming four reunited girls coming together to bring hope and spirit to troops all over Vietnam. One of my favorite lines in the film is when Dave Lovelace is trying to convince the girls that they need to step away from country music and embrace the wonder that is soul music.
“Country music is about loss. Soul music is also about loss. But the difference is, in country and western music, they’ve lost, they’ve given up and they’re just at home whining about it. In soul music, they’re struggling to get it back, and they haven’t given up, so every note that passes through your lips should have the tone of a woman who’s grasping and fighting and desperate to retrieve what’s been taken from her.”
When The Sapphires are singing to the troops they are bringing hope back into their lives. And when times are dark and fearful, their voices unite them and tell the troops that we are strong, we can’t let the evil in this world bring us down! That is what I loved about this film. Even when the environment was scary and they had no idea where they would be next or who they would be performing for, the girls always managed to come together in one way or another to lift the falling spirits.
“In the old days, the land felt a great emptiness. It was waiting, waiting to be filled up, waiting for someone to love it, waiting for a leader. And he came on the back of a whale, a man to lead a new people. Our ancestor, Paikea.”
Whale Rider is the incredible story of a young girl, named after her people’s ancestor Paikea, who strives to gain the acceptance of her family by showing them that she can be the leader that her deceased twin brother was destined to be. As a kid I had a passion for all things Polynesian. I even took Polynesian dance for six years and performed in an outfit similar to the one Paikea is wearing above. I still have that same talisman tucked away somewhere in my room. Despite being one of the few white girls in my dance class I managed to learn a lot about the pride that Polynesians have for their culture. Especially that they don’t like being compared to Hawaiians, they are Polynesian to the core. However, I had never heard of the story of their mythic ancestor Paikea. Watching this movie I was fascinated with this legend of the whale rider and how it ties in with their culture. As well as the chants that they would sing in times of hope and in times of loss. Throughout the film I felt as if I was on an emotional roller coaster holding my breath for the moment Paikea’s grandfather realized that she truly was the descendant of their greatest ancestor. It wasn’t until the end when Pai was riding into the ocean on the back of the whale, meanwhile I am bawling my eyes out, that Koro realizes what he has been blind to this whole time, his granddaughter truly is Paikea. Took him long enough!
The film Smoke Signals is about two young Indians, Victor and Thomas, who take a trip to Phoenix, Arizona to pick up a few things that belonged to Victor’s father who suddenly passed away. Victor has always been a stubborn child since his father up and left him and his mom. He has carried this bitterness towards his father like a chip on his shoulder, always looking to Thomas to take his anger out on.
At the beginning of the film the narrator describes Victor and Thomas as “children born of flame and ash.” This description carries on throughout the film starting with the fire that changed everything and ended with the ashes of Victor’s father who was the source of so much tension. When Victor throws his fathers ashes into the rushing water it is the perfect symbol of release and forgiveness.
The character that really carried the film for me was Thomas. His innocent, carefree spirit and love for telling stories helped keep the plot alive. There was something wonderful about him. No matter how much Victor yelled at him to stop telling stories, he wouldn’t let it deter him, especially when those stories were about Victor’s father. To him, telling these stories was a way of both keeping Victor’s father alive and showing Victor that he wasn’t all bad despite what he grew up believing. Every story, whether it was exaggerated or not, was a way for him to hold on to the memories he cherished most.
Billy Elliot has always been at the top of my bucket list of films to watch. Let me tell you, it did not disappoint. For many years all I have heard about this film were good things. So because of that, before the opening titles were even finished, I already had my standards set pretty high. In the beginning I wasn’t too sure about how I felt about it yet. I was still iffy on whether or not I liked it. However, as soon as Billy decided to join in on the ballet classes instead of boxing I knew that this was when it really started to get good. I have always been a really big Jamie Bell fan despite him never being in any major roles, so when I noticed that he was the main star of this film I was both excited and curious to see why. Apparently Jamie Bell grew up in a household of dancers and started imitating dance moves outside his sisters dance practices before being asked to join in. His own story practically imitates that of Billy Elliot’s in that they both started dancing in secret. That is one of the aspects that I love about this film. So often in real life people start off doing what they love in secret before their family finally becomes accepting of it. One of my favorite scenes in the film is while Billy’s dad, brother Tony, and Mrs. Wilkinson all fight about whether or not he should be allowed to continue ballet, Billy starts dancing his frustrations out through the streets and along rooftops, passionately tapping his feet along the way. He doesn’t even realize exactly what it is that he’s doing, all he’s thinking about is finding some way or other to vent these emotions. Billy Elliot truly is an outstanding film and I am more than happy to finally check it off of my bucket list.
Songcatcher is a film about a woman by the name of Dr. Lily Penleric who decides to publish a book of all the songs she has discovered from the people living in the mountain. The songs that many of the people sing were learnt from their parents and/or great-grandparents all of them originating back to old England and Scotland before the settlement in the United States. Dr. Penleric comes across many different men and women, husbands and wives, who use singing as a way of expressing their emotions. After taking the offer that Mr. Giddens practically forces upon them Mr. and Mrs. Gentry pull out a violin and sings a song to express the melancholy of their new situation. Another scene of the film shows a whole community of mountain people gathering around having a good time while men and women play different instruments to accompany those who are dancing. For the mountain people singing is their ultimate form of expression and is cherished just as highly as the land itself. At one point Dr. Penleric even goes on to explain it as, “it’s like the air you all breathe.” Between the story that the lyrics unveil and the sound that the instruments provide it is a history in and of itself that each of these songs hold.
Both La Mission and Mi Familia were a joy to watch. I especially loved La Mission and the compelling story line it shared. While La Mission centers on a father finding out about his son being gay and having a hard time accepting this, Mi Familia centers on one big family and how each of the kids lives turn out, especially focusing on Jimmy (the youngest son) and the struggles he is constantly facing. The main theme that sticks out when watching each of these films is that of family and how strongly the fathers cherish such a bond.
“The greatest riches a man can have in his life…mi familia.” – Mi Familia
The father in each film, Che in La Mission and Jimmy in Mi Familia, have grown up through rebellion so whenever something goes wrong they both seem to take their emotions out through anger and violence. While neither of them impose this violence directly on their family, excluding when Che first finds out about his sons sexuality, they don’t care in the slightest what kind of trouble their anger may bring upon themselves. What I really appreciated about these films was how real these scenes were and the vulnerabilities that these fathers showed regarding the well being of their sons.
Buena Vista Social Club was originally a members only social club in Havana, Cuba where people would gather to have drinks and enjoy live music. Despite the club closing in the 1940’s its reputation still hangs around thanks to the group of older Cuban musicians who formed a band with the same name. Throughout the film we both to get to hear the music that has been inspired by the Cuban community as well as meet the cherished members that make up the band. I loved listening to the stories told by each of the members alongside excerpts of their live performance in Amsterdam. Every musician in the Buena Vista Social Club has their own inspiring story that they share and yet every single one of them has one thing in common…a love for music that began at an incredibly young age. The musician that enticed me the most was Ruben Gonzales, a piano player born in Santa Clara in 1919. Growing up Ruben recalls having a John Stowers piano in his home where he began teaching himself how to play at the age of seven. By first grade he became so good that his mother signed him up for formal lessons with a private teacher. The way his fingers flow effortlessly across the keys of the piano is incredible and the music that comes from it even more so. The way he recalls the story of how he first begun playing and the scene in the film where we see him playing for the young girls and boys at their gymnastics practice it is impossible to not see the pure joy that he gets when doing what he loves.
I remember as a kid wanting to learn how to play the piano because I always loved the sounds that it could create. Not having enough money to buy a piano for the house my parents suggested I learn to play the guitar instead. After attempting to learn the guitar I have a strong appreciation for those who are able to play it so effortlessly because after many many lessons I was never able to get the hang of getting the fingers on my left hand to hold down the note while the fingers on my right hand strummed them together. In the end the guitar just wasn’t for me. However, after watching this film it rekindles the desire of mine to learn the piano just as I had wanted to when I was a kid. Perhaps it’s not too late to learn a new skill, or at least give a long forgotten yearning a try.
Currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego there are several exhibits featuring the work of Mexican-American artists. Each exhibit was fascinating in their own way, however, the one that stood out the most to me was Watching, Waiting, Commiserating by Ruben Ochoa. This LA-based artist was able to combine everyday materials typically associated with some form of labor and present them in a more outstanding and almost eerie manner. As mentioned in Ochoa’s description of this particular sculpture it “dwells in a space between literal enactment and abstract reference to labor, positing new relationships between the body and the built environment.” These eleven towering structures with shipping pallets as the body and wiry rebar poking out like legs give off this sort of sci-fi feel. When I first noticed these sculptures they immediately made me think of the alien ships in H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. With the rebar of each structure curling and entwining with one another towering at different heights it almost looks as if the sculptures themselves are alive. This can be seen even more so with it’s comparison to the recycled brick wall that separates this exhibit from the rest of the museum. Even with the wall obscuring ones view from the the majority of the sculpture we can still see the pallets towering over the top of it as if they are preparing to burst their way through. Perhaps this interaction of exhibits is intentional or perhaps it’s merely the interpretation of the beholder. Either way Watching, Waiting, Commiserating is compelling all on it’s own.