A Little Slice of Pine Ridge at Sundance Film Festival

Posted By Toyacoyah Brown January 26th, 2015 Last Updated on: January 26th, 2015

A lot of buzz is being generated about the film Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which will be shown at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival this week. Maybe it's because the film is set on the Pine Ridge Reservation and the director, Chloé Zhao, was born in Beijing.

As Zhao tells Filmmaker Magazine back in 2013, a lot of people have asked why she's interested in the Lakota's story.

“I get asked a lot, ‘Why are you doing this?’” Zhao says that the same impulses that led her to political science attracted her to this tale of an insurgent Lakota teen finding his way to adulthood within a cloistered environment in which teen suicide is rampant. “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere,” she continues. “You felt like you were never going to be able to get out. A lot of info I received when I was younger was not true, and I became very rebellious toward my family and my background. I went to England suddenly and relearned my history. Studying political science in a liberal arts college was a way for me to figure out what is real. Arm yourself with information, and then challenge that too.”

But after four years of college Zhao found herself “turned off by politics.” Tending bar, she discovered she liked “meeting people and learning about their histories.” Believing that film combined all these interests, and not knowing anyone in the industry, she enrolled in New York University’s Graduate Film Program.

Lee (now Songs My Brothers Taught Me) got its start three years ago when Zhao read a newspaper article about a teen suicide epidemic on the reservation next to Pine Ridge. With a producer, she traveled to Pine Ridge and “started knocking on doors, meeting young people.” Soon, she put together a non-pro cast and began developing her script…


And now that script has turned into a full-fledged film!

So what exactly is the movie about? Here's the synopsis from the Sundance website:

High school senior Johnny is fixing to leave the Pine Ridge Reservation when the unexpected death of his rodeo-cowboy father complicates things. Reluctant to leave behind his 13-year-old sister, Jashaun, with whom he shares a special bond, Johnny must rethink his future. While Jashaun seeks out answers from her older half-brothers, Johnny's increasing inner conflict stands in the way of his departure, setting both of them on separate paths toward rediscovering the meaning of home.

Marking an auspicious feature debut, Chloé Zhao sensitively infiltrates isolated Indian Country to offer a rare, modern gaze keenly felt through the eyes of her magnetic non-professional lead actors. While Joshua James Richards's evocative cinematography captures the breathtaking Badlands of legend, Zhao organically taps into the pulse of her complicated characters' evolving narratives. Demonstrating directorial aplomb and a transcendent storytelling approach, Songs My Brothers Taught Me is a universally resonant tale set amid the magnificent, promising wild of young generation Lakotas.

Two of the stars from the film, John Reddy & Jashaun St. John, have also been chosen as breakout stars according to The Wrap:

Reddy and St. John may be non-professional actors but Chloe Zhao’s feature debut isn’t a one-off for either of them. The duo play half-siblings who embark on separate paths when the unexpected death of his father complicates his plans to leave the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” this drama could surprise audiences who go in with an open mind regarding a community rarely seen on the big screen.

Great news for those two! And the movie sounds very interesting. Hopefully it hits my area soon! For more information on scheduled screenings at Sundance, you can follow Songs My Brothers Taught Me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/songsmybrotherstaughtme/timeline.

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About Toyacoyah Brown

Toyacoyah Brown is an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation, currently living in Chicago. She received her B.A. in Journalism from the University of Oklahoma and an M.A. in Media Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. When she's not scouring the Internet for fun things to share with PowWows.com readers you can find her digging for vinyl in her local record store or curling up with a good book.

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