By Ali Moosavi.
Despite the title and the grandiose nature of the film…[Makwa’s journey] was really a personal retelling of things that I’ve seen in my Ojibwe community and the different responses to trauma there.”
Wild Indian is the feature film debut of Native American filmmaker Lyle Corbine Jr. Lyle. He uses a Cain and Abel-like fable to tell the story of two childhood friends in a Native American community. Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) has been abused physical and mentally from a young age. This has made a deep impression on his character, alienating from the world around him and turning him into a cold-blooded killer. His best friend Ted-O (Chaske Spencer) has a different set of moral values, driven by the teachings of the church. A crime separates the two until they meet again in very different circumstances for both characters, which affect the position in society and overview of life and religion for each.
Wild Indian is everything an independent film should be. Not conforming to the established milieus of mainstream films, it challenges and disturbs, taking the viewers out of their comfort zones. It does not offer easy solutions and leaves some of the questions to the viewers to find their own answers for them. It is an impressive debut. I spoke to its writer-director, Lyle Corbine Jr.
At the beginning of the film a voiceover tells us that “some time ago there was an Ojibwe man who got sick and wandered east”. The story of Makwa and Ted-O reminds one of Cain and Abel in which after Cain murders Abel, God condemns him to a life of wondering.
I’ve been interested in archetypal storytelling for a while and the wonderful depth of interpretations of the Cain and Abel story was something that I wanted to play within the context of Makwa and Ted-O and also Makwa and the murdered boy. So it was definitely one of those things that I had in mind as I was writing the film.
The Makwa character comes across as quite cold blooded and detached. Was this just a personality trait or his cultural heritage had something to do with it?
For the character of Makwa, it was one of those things where he was really informed by the trauma and the abuse that he was going through. His personality was built on the emotional armor that he was building up. What could be interpreted as the unfeeling way that he goes about interacting with the world, was really just an emotional armor for distancing himself from the world around him mentally. It didn’t have to do with anything specifically cultural. In fact, I wanted it to be universal in the sense that this is just a response that people have to trauma there.
We see Makwa from being abused and having a miserable life, fast forward to an adult with a beautiful wife, beautiful house and a great job. It seems that his single-mindedness, ruthlessness and the fact that he didn’t let morality get in his way has enabled him to successfully achieve what he counts as success.
Yes, part of the fun of the structure of the film is that we have such a large time jump of thirty odd years. So filling in the gap of how Makwa got from being this boy on a reservation to being a mid-level corporate executive is to ask did he get there by cutting through or did he get there by just putting his head down and doing the work that he had to do? Was this change of fortune deserved or was it something that he cut his way through? In terms of providing answers, I think he had a dream that he just wanted to be somebody outside of the world that he was in as a kid and he did what you needed to do to get there. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything nefarious about his rise to that point or his trajectory to that point. I just think that he is somebody that has put aside his old self entirely and tried to rebuild himself. That’s all I really meant by the jump. Then, when he is confronted with his past, he has to sort out where he is in his life at this point.
Does his journey in any way represent the journey of the Native Americans? The suffering and everything that he went through?
It was never really my intention, despite the title and the grandiose nature of the film that it could be interpreted that way. It was really a personal retelling of things that I’ve seen in my Ojibwe community and the different responses to trauma.
In the film there is a lot of emphasis on religion, priests talking about tortured souls and sacrifices for God etc. What impact did religion have on Makwa and his character?
Yes, it’s one of those things that I’ve witnessed. For instance, my Grandfather who was chief of my reservation and died recently and to whom this film is dedicated, told me stories of being in these Catholic travel schools that the Catholic Church set up and how they would beat him if he spoke Ojibwean, which was his first language. By the time he was my age, I don’t think he spoke our language anymore. So it was one of those kind of things where this culture that was coming in by the missionaries tried to beat out or take control of the native culture in these areas. I thought it would be an interesting take on just the opposite: if we had a character like Makwa who really fell into the religious doctrine and ideology and maybe the ways that he could rebuild his life or build a life outside of his community by embracing that doctrine or that ideology that came in and changed our community.
There seem to be two endings for the film set at different time periods. In one we see Makwa older, sick and wandering and in the other he gets away with murder.
I suppose I wanted to see the character just make worse and worse decisions based on preserving his sense of self and his ego, and to have that dramatic explanation of why he thinks that way about his culture and the world that he left behind. That was why I designed the movie the way that I did. I really wanted this character to get to a point where we saw this strange manifestation of a self-hatred. That was my intention in structuring the film.
When we see Makwa sick and wondering, it could be deduced that there is a God who punished him, though the courts and man-made justice let him go. You are bringing two different judgments: judgment from God and judgment by man. Was that in your thinking?
I wish I thought like that because it’s very interesting and a really cool interpretation of the movie! But I was just kind of going to a natural end and ended up showing the way that society might punish somebody in a certain point if they were able to hide it and then the way that the individual might punish themselves, and I suppose in a way that is the God’s way of punishment.
Both Michael Greyeyes and Chaske Spencer have Native American heritage. Did you try to find and cast Native American actors for the parts?
I was lucky enough to get exactly who I wanted for the film. I’d been a fan of Chaske’s work for many years and I knew that he had to play the part of Ted-O who would be the heart of the film. I’ve been a fan of Michael for years too, but it was tough to see who would be Makwa. Because based just on what was on the page it was hard to figure out what the physical presence of Makwa might be like and when I started thinking of Michael and the kind of iconography of the way that Michael looks and the kind of power and confidence that he exudes, then I was imagining him in that role and it started to make sense. I knew Michael will be able to do the part because he is an incredible actor. So, I started rewriting it for him and he was elated to be a part of it.
Were there any autobiographical elements written into any of the two main characters? Anything that you personally had experienced?
Things in my family for sure. There are things about Makwa’s upbringing that I’ve seen and that I’ve heard from generations prior that really affected me here growing up but nothing specific to my life. All the details of the way people look, and the way people talk, are things that I see every day in my life.
Jesse Eisenberg is a producer and he’s got a small role as well. How did he get involved in the film?
We were out for financing and we found a big chunk and were really excited but we were having a hard time getting over this certain threshold that was needed to get the green light for the film. We got the script to Jesse and even though the part was small, he wanted to be a part of it to help me as a filmmaker and make this story become a film. So, he became involved and helped us in a huge way to get the film made. He’s also an incredible performer and I was really happy to have him in our film.
What’s been the life of the film so far? Has it been in many festivals?
It’s playing internationally a few places. It opened theatrically and on VOD in the US on September 3rd. I’ve been so busy I haven’t been tracking it that close. I think it’s playing in London next month or this later this month and COVID cancelled a couple of things, but it screened at Sundance and I was really elated that it did in competition. That’s been my dream for ever since I was a teenager to have a feature film in Sundance, not only in Sundance but playing in competition which was another level of just feeling great about what the film has ended up being.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).