On ‘Land’ and Some Other Cinematic Issues


    Babak Jalali’s latest feature Land portrays the life of a Native American family living in a reservation in the United States. Every day a new challenge emerges and they must overcome it one way or another. After its world premiere at the Berlinale, the film had a special screening at the Warsaw Film Festival, which was a good opportunity to talk with the director about the key themes, the casting, the Indigenous communities, and some issues related to cinema. 

    Since you are not a Native American, first, I’d like to ask you why you wanted to make a film about a Native American family.

    I’m Iranian, raised in England, so very far removed from Native Americans. About seven-eight years ago in London, I read an article in a British newspaper, The Guardian, about a specific reservation in South Dakota, in the United States. Originally - it is my own ignorance, because I was interested in the history of Native Americans, but I didn’t know about their contemporary life -  there were two striking things in the article: one was the images, which looked a lot like my hometown in the northern Iranian border, near Turkmenistan. And what was really shocking was the statistics that was displayed in this article about this particular reservation: 40,000 people living there, 90% unemployed, 88% alcoholic, 40% diabetic, life expectancy for men 47, for women – 49. And, you know, for me it was quite shocking that in the middle of the world’s richest country people were allowed to live this way. So I went to this particular reservation and I spent some time there, and, for the next few years I kept going back to different reservations around. That’s how it started.

    There is an ongoing discussion about who has the rights to tell the stories of Indigenous people, as Indigenous artists and film-makers say they want to tell their own stories. As you’re not a Native person, what the films depicts is not your experience, and looking at the credits I haven’t really found Native Americans in creative roles, such as a writer, producer, or anyone within the crew. So I’m wondering how the film was produced.

    I preferred to get that input from the actors – it would have been bizarre if I had cast non-Native Americans. Because the film was entirely Europe-funded, we had spending obligations. I had to take the crew members from certain countries. That’s one. Two, we talked to many consultants along the way. For me, the important thing was the involvement of the actors in how the story was shaped and formed. Like, for example, if anything that was written by myself in the script we did run it by them. And a lot of the actors did experience many similar things in their own life, some of them – far more shocking things.

    Whether I have the right to tell their stories is a very good question, something I’ve been asking myself since the beginning. You know, when I was in America, whether researching or travelling around in these years in the reservation, I’d say the majority of the Indigenous population were very supportive when I said I’m Iranian and asked ‘How do you feel about me making this film?’ Some, yes, said ‘what are you doing?’ But the majority were very supportive. What I found was that most people against the idea of me doing this film were the non-Indigenous Americans, so white, Caucasian Americans. They were more like ‘What are you doing?’

    What was their argument against you making this film?

    Predominantly it was more like ‘It is not of your concern’, or just ‘Why telling such stories?’ Or they were concerned that it was going to be some form of, I guess, liberal propaganda, like situations, where I’m saying poor Indigenous people are being mistreated, look at what the whites are doing, this kind of things. Amongst the Indigenous population though, even the ones who were against the idea of me doing this, said ‘Better you than a Caucasian American’. Adding to the fact that there is a great deal presenting Native Americans in contemporary cinema.

    You show this particular story, which offers a poignant reality, and it should be shown to people, but there is danger in it because maybe this is the only film they will see about Native Americans. So this will be the only Native reality they would learn about. But there are other realities, such as the ones of Native women running for office, or of those protesting in Standing Rock against Dakota Access Pipeline.

    Yes, they are protesting, taking more actions. For sure, this is not at all a uniform representation of them. I hear what you’re saying about the constant representation of them as these people suffering in this way. I mean… The story I wanted to tell was more from an anger about how they were treated as opposed to telling an uplifting story, let’s say, about a woman running for office in Washington D.C. This is great and admirable, and I don’t want to downplay that. I think it is wonderful, but I don’t think it fits into the idea I had, and where that anger stemmed from.

    And you know, I’m an Iranian, and, for example, there was a period in the mid-90s when Iranian cinema really exploded in the festival scene in Europe. A lot of those films were rural picture of Iranians, and the Iranian population living in Europe, in America and Canada, when they watched these films, you know, they were irritated and saying ‘Why are you constantly showing rural Iranians or poor Iranians, illiterate Iranians or farmers? You know we have doctors, we have surgeons, we have poets, we have authors. Why don’t you show that kind of stuff?’ And what I was taught and also confronted by, because my first film was about my hometown, which is also a rural area, when someone said to me that it’s not my responsibility to make Iranians abroad feel good about themselves, and 'Oh, we are also great and do wonderful things. Why are you always showing farmers?' My interest was to show a particular group of people and not an advertising board for  progress, more of a presentation of something that is occurring.

    No matter how many people become Indigenous rock stars, Indigenous politicians, this is happening and it doesn’t seem like it’s anywhere near stopping, you know. I haven’t seen anything that shows me 'Oh, actually things are happening that’s gonna stop this.' I don’t claim that my film is going to do that, by no means. I’m not one of those people who has faith in the power of cinema to make changes. Because if you want the cinema to make changes, then the director must be Spielberg, or someone who fills up multiplexes.

    Arthouse cinema has no power to change anything because the audience members are like-minded people. But, of course, if they wanted to make such films, they wouldn’t sell all those tickets. The ones that sell are the ones with a subliminal message about Spiderman going up a building. Sony has such a subliminal message, and it gets through to people. I personally don’t believe in the power of unification and change, but it is possible to show sides of life people don’t regularly see. Certainly, Europeans and lot of Americans don’t know that this is going on.

    So, maybe it is only Spielberg and other influential directors who have the power to change things, but there is a problem with representation. We don’t make such films because we think the audience won’t like them.

    I think it’s a realistic thought. Right now making a film and getting it seen is far more difficult than 20 years ago. If you made a film then, the chance of getting a cinema release was still decent. Now it’s getting more difficult outside the spectrum of festivals. Because of that difficulty, it makes it more difficult for people to take risks – whether there are directors, producers or financiers coming and taking risks on something. Something like Spike Lee’s films in the 1980s. Someone took a risk on that guy and made these films, which are really important. It did make a difference, I think. Whether that’s to raise awareness of consciousness and everything. I don’t think those films could be made right now, in the current climate. If they were made today, they would be made in a much more obscure way, shown in a much more obscure setting as opposed to having Do the Right Thing on a billboard in New York.

    Speaking of the hardships of filmmaking, what were some of the unexpected challenges you  encountered while shooting?

    Not that we didn’t expect them. A lot of Caucasian Americans don’t want to be involved in a project like this. I don’t mean only Republicans, but people covering a wide spectrum of political and social beliefs. And so we had a big problem getting involvement on the human level. Financially... let’s not even go there. The main problem was the bureaucratic nightmare of shooting a film entirely financed by Europe over there. Of course, it wasn’t an option to shoot somewhere in Europe. Obviously the plan all along was to shoot in a specific reservation. 

    Have the people in the reservation you visited seen the film?

    Not yet, we’re still trying to show it somewhere in North America. Our sales agents have, let’s say, particular responsibilities they need to cater to before it is shown in reservations. The actors have seen it.

    Based on the screenings organised so far, how would you describe the audience response?

    We premiered in Berlin, at the Berlinale, and so far we released in the cinemas in France, and it’s gone to festivals. Based on the festivals or the screenings in France I went to, it’s been good. Many times that question comes up: ‘How come you made this film? You’re Iranian, not Native’. That’s the question I get often. But overall it is positive. Some came and said they had no idea this was happening, and have more questions about it. Others were asking how we found the actors, how we cast the film.

    And how did you cast them?

    For seven months, we did an open call in the United States and Canada, for Indigenous people, so not just actors but anyone, both urban and rural Indigenous population. There was a huge response, many people were coming. For me, it was not important at all that they were actors or not, or having any set experience. It was more about their personal experiences, and their presence as well.

    Based on some quick research, the actors playing the family members are not from the same tribes. This somewhat strengthens the stereotype that they are all the same. Wasn’t that a problem for you?

    They are not the same, by any means. That’s why I set it in a fictional reservation – Prairie Wolf doesn’t exist. Originally, the film was supposed to be shot in Pine Ridge, Lakota Sioux, South Dakota. Then we were supposed to shoot in New Mexico, Navajo. At different times – in Montana or in Wyoming. If it were in Lakota Pine Ridge, they would have been all Sioux, if it were Navajo, all would have been Navajo, if it were Montana, they would have been all Crow, for example. But that proved impossible casting-wise. And it’s primarily for that reason, once it was decided that there were not going to be an Indigenous language spoken in the film, that I set it in a fictional reservation. I don’t allude to what tribe they resemble or are similar to, regarding shared heritage or history.

    As for a final question, why did you decide to shoot it in English?

    The reality of contemporary life is that they mostly speak English. Amongst the elders, there is still a smattering of Indigenous tongues. Younger generations want to take up Indigenous languages but they are a minority. The common language amongst the generation is English. My actors speak Indigenous languages: the mother Mary, the young Joe, the young boy. They do speak it, but the majority who auditioned or among those whom I met in the reservation when I was there, it is not that common. Plus, I wanted it to be a contemporary setting. I avoided certain things like sweat lodges, for example. A lot of people actually go to reservations to visit casinos, sweat lodges and things like that. I purposely left those out, because I wanted to keep the focus on that particular relationship between Indians and whites – on a local level, the custodians. On the national level, the military.