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Aboriginal cult comedy Smoke Signals weaves humour into a story of broken families and forgiveness

Road trip movies are a dime a dozen — but it’s not often you see one told from an aboriginal point of view.

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By Valerie Franklin (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 18, 2015

Road trip movies are a dime a dozen — but it’s not often you see one told from an aboriginal point of view.

A dozen students and faculty gathered at the Global Lounge on February 4 for a screening of the 1998 independent film Smoke Signals, hosted by the sociology anthropology undergrad society (SAUS) and the aboriginal students club. Based on Sherman Alexie’s short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the film is a dramatic comedy rooted in realism and the kind of gentle, self-deprecating humour that makes you smile rather than laugh out loud.

The story follows two young men from the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), a geeky young storyteller who wears unstylish suits and neat pigtails, and Victor Joseph (Adam Beach), an angry rebel whose violent, alcoholic father left his family when Victor was a boy. When news comes that his estranged father has died, it’s up to Victor to travel to his father’s trailer in Arizona to settle his affairs — and Thomas insists on tagging along.

“Think of this as an aboriginal road [trip] movie,” says Michelle La Flamme. “It’s a standard American trope, yet these characters are from a reserve and they learn a different set of things along the way.”

Neither of the main characters has ever left the rez before, and as they venture into the outside world for the first time, the casual racism they encounter provides a startling counterpoint to the film’s humour: “What kind of Injun are you?” asks a police officer in disgust on finding out that Victor doesn’t drink alcohol.

But the heart of the story is the aching, cathartic journey Victor must go on to forgive his father for abandoning him as a child in order to come to terms with his grief.

“It’s a unique male bonding story with a father-son relationship that needs to be worked through,” says La Flamme. “It’s beautifully done, realistically portrayed. The longing, the need for a father figure, is moving, powerful.”

Smoke Signals is notable for not just having almost all aboriginal actors but also an aboriginal screenwriter, director, producer, and technicians. Perhaps in part because of this, it’s developed a minor cult following; La Flamme notes that people have even dressed up as Thomas and Victor for Halloween.

Before the screening of Smoke Signals, another film was shown: Savage, a five-minute short depicting a young aboriginal girl being separated from her mother and taken to a residential school. Told through haunting music and dance, the short film made a powerful statement about the breaking of families and the longing for reunion. While Smoke Signals is vastly different from Savage in tone, Victor’s simultaneous hatred and grief for his father reflects the same themes of involuntary estrangement and longing: “Did he ever talk about me?” he asks his father’s neighbour in a rare moment of vulnerability.

Gradually, with the help of Thomas’ insight, Victor overcomes his anger and grows to understand that his father left because his flaws were making his family suffer, not because he didn’t love his son.

“Victor finally realizes that his dad has always had him as a core part of his identity, and that’s the beginning of his grief process,” says LaFlamme.

Following the film, La Flamme led a roundtable discussion, asking each viewer about their impressions of the film. Responses ranged from questions about the symbolism of hair-cutting, an important motif throughout the film, to comments on the funny yet touching dynamic between Victor and the puppyish but wise Thomas, whose penchant for innocently asking tactless questions lands him in trouble more than once.

For most attendees it was their first time seeing the film, but Morris Prosser, president of the aboriginal students club and aboriginal representative at the Student Union Society, has seen it several times. He notes that its realistic portrayal of painful issues like alcoholism and poverty has a unifying power on its viewers, especially if they have aboriginal roots.

“We say we’re all connected to each other,” he says. “Any native person who watches [Smoke Signals] will get a sense of understanding.”

And while the film’s main story is an aboriginal narrative, La Flamme points out that its poignant theme of reconciling the flaws in our parents with our love for them is one that transcends race.

“The story of a fractured relationship with a parent, especially a man’s relationship with his father, has universal resonance,” she says.

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