I’ve seen many people come to my reservation either to pursue a project or to gain insight on what life is like “on the rez”. Though many of these people were simply in search of a good story, through expose or even exploitation, what I found with the director/writer of this film, Chloe Zhao, is a lifelong friend, talented creative and invaluable resource.
I met Chloe Zhao, who was born in Beijing, China, and started making films in graduate school, in 2010 when she first came to the Pine Ridge. I actually met her at a powwow in Kyle, where my oral interp/drama coach asked several of us to meet her and her friends to talk about a project. To say that we hit it off is an understatement; we spent hours visiting about everything and I even did a short interview for her before they left.
Over the next few years, Chloe and her film crew made visits back to start casting the film, working with local people for potential sites and making personal connections with the individuals that were to help with the film.
Almost all of the actors were local with little to no experience and have been on a rollercoaster since the film wrapped last summer and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival this Spring and I was able to attend the screening at Nunpa Theatre in Kyle, SD for the first screening at home.
Songs is a story that is very personal to everyone who’s grown up on the rez. It is the coming-of-age story of John, a teenager who bootlegs alcohol in order to make some money so he can move across the country to be with his girlfriend when she goes to college. Throughout the movie, his father, whom he never really knew, passes away in a house fire; his mother is present but isn’t really there, dealing with alcoholism and more concerned about her own life than her kids; his little sister finding out he’s leaving and growing resentful because he didn’t tell her; and all of the random but familiar personalities that we’ve all come to know on our reservation.
In the words of Chloe, The goal of Songs was to portray as many unique characters as possible in order to challenge the stereotypical view of Native Americans in the United States. When I went to see the screening with my husband, we were just so enthralled. Personally, I went in not knowing what to expect, since I had very little involvement with production aside from initially meeting Chloe and keeping in touch over the years, but came out so moved and thoroughly enjoyed the story line, characters, setting and emotion of the film.
I was able to ask the main characters, John Reddy and JaShaun St. John, to ask them some questions about their lives, the film and life after.
Tell me a little of your background.
John: I'm 20. I'm from Allen, South Dakota, mostly chilling in Kyle. I like to ride horses, hang out with my friends, doing work with my hands. I graduated from Pine Ridge High School. I'm funny and like to make people laugh.
Jashaun: I'm 13 years old. I'm a powwow dancer, fancy shawl. I graduated from Wolf Creek School and plan on going to Red Cloud Indian School for high school. I love playing outdoors and was a cheerleader.
Do you have any acting/speaking experience?
How did you initially hear about Songs and what was the casting process like for you?
John: I didn't hear about it, Chloe found me in my high school year book and found me at Pine Ridge during lunch.
Jashaun: I went to the open call. We were late and they left already. Chloé saw me at a powwow and asked me to audition. They had no role for me, but they wrote one for me after I auditioned.
What were you thinking or feeling when you knew you were going to be a part of this?
Jashaun: I was nervous and didn't want to do it at first, but my mom convinced me
John: I didn't really believe her at first but was glad to be part of it, and I was really nervous.
Did those feelings change or escalate as production went on and filming wrapped up?
John: I was less nervous, and still feels kind of awkward when people ask questions in front of camera. (The film festival Q&A and interviews)
Jashaun: Kind of. I was still a little nervous, but more confident in front of camera and acting.
Tell me a typical day on set for each of you.
Jashuan: For the house of horror party filming day, I went to school in the morning, then they would check me out in the afternoon. They painted each other's faces and they were taking pictures of me. I picked a pig mask to wear in the scene. The funny part was we all have to run out of the house when Chloe said action. I was trying to not laugh and it was hard to stay serious.
John: I stayed on a ranch at night. Woke up, breakfast, then ride the RV. Chloe give me a couple of pages of scripts. I make the lines into how I will say it. Then we get to Kyle. I was doing scene with Derrick Janis where he threatens me in the scene. I supposed to say, “you get better over there, mommas boy” but I said “baby mama” instead, then we couldn’t stop laughing. We got into the RV and go to the Badlands. It's a hard scene because Jashaun and I have to pretend to be sad. Jashaun ask if I'm leaving her. We didn't rehearse, just did it. We had to do homework. Dinner. Sometimes we play basketball before bed.
What was it like working with Irene Bedard?
Jashaun: It was cool because she is in many movies and this is my first time acting. It was amazing she plays my mom.
John: Like working with a normal person. She is like us.
I seen your trip to Cannes on Instagram, what was that like?
Jashaun: It was great. People paid a lot of attention to us and asked us a lot about life on Pine Ridge.
John: It was amazing. Awesome. Somewhere I never been before. We had some boat trips, seen some jellyfish and famous people.
Do you relate to the story in any way? Do you feel it is an accurate portrayal of life on the reservation?
John: Yes. It shows what's going on through our eyes. Not trying to make them look bad, just wanna show it. I relate to it. About 80% of the character is me. I related to the principle that family is important.
Jashaun: I always wanted an older brother but I don’t have one in real life. I feel close to Johnny. It shows how it is on the rez, family is the most important thing.
What is your hope for Songs? What do you think it will show the world. the U.S. and people right here at home?
John: I hope it go out there, gets bigger and a lot people to see it. It shows us that kids are taking care of kids. Family is important. There is hope for us young people. For it to make the older people here on the rez to think about the young ones, the youth, to pay attention to them more and take care of them.
Jashaun: I hope the film travels more and teaches others a lesson on how much your family means to you.
Chloe: This is a film especially for the young people who are struggling. I wish the film shows them how strong and resilient they are and that they are important and they should be celebrated. And even if they can’t or won’t leave the reservation, they can still build a great life right here where they are. I was very thankful to hear some parents telling me that the film reminded them to pay more attention to their younger ones. I didn’t expect that reaction but that was amazing.
I hope that everyone else who is watching will realize that the question “Why don’t they just leave?” is a very complicated one. It’s not the solution to the problems. And also, to just take a moment to get to know a group of interesting characters, to experience their family ties and the magnificent landscapes right in their backyards, and hopefully understand why their attachment to this land is so strong.