‘Smoke Sig­nals’ 20th

Pechanga Re­sort to screen films writ­ten, pro­duced and di­rected by Na­tive Amer­i­cans

Variety - - Contents - By NICK CLE­MENT

‘Smoke Sig­nals’ was an out­let for me to deal with my own par­ents’ deaths from when I was a child.” Adam Beach

This Ain’t ‘Dances With Sal­mons’ Adam Beach, left, and Evan Adams star in “Smoke Sig­nals,” as two friends who go on a road trip and learn more about them­selves.

The late 1990s were a gold­mine for in­de­pen­dent cinema, with fi­nanciers and dis­trib­u­tors will­ing to gam­ble on di­verse ma­te­rial in the wake of “Pulp Fic­tion’s” break­out suc­cess ear­lier that decade. “Smoke Sig­nals,” mar­keted by Mi­ra­max as “the first fea­ture film writ­ten, di­rected, and pro­duced by Na­tive Amer­i­cans,” was a crit­i­cal suc­cess and crowd fa­vorite from its de­but at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in 1998, win­ning the Film­maker’s Tro­phy for di­rec­tor Chris Eyre and the Au­di­ence Award there be­fore its the­atri­cal re­lease that sum­mer. Two decades years later, it’s not hard to see why “Smoke Sig­nals” res­onated: The movie is filled with hu­mor, heart and gen­uine af­fec­tion for its char­ac­ters, hit­ting notes of sad­ness, in­tro­spec­tion and well- earned cathar­sis.

“I get caught up in the emo­tional process of for­give­ness, and I think that’s why the movie res­onated and has en­dured,” Eyre says. “We brought a great sense of mag­i­cal re­al­ism to the story, and it all comes to­gether in the end.”

To salute the film, the Pechanga Re­sort & Casino in Te­mec­ula, Calif., will hold a 20th an­niver­sary cast screen­ing Sept. 26. The Na­tional In­dian Gam­ing Assn., Pechanga Band of Luiseño In­di­ans and Imag­ine This are spon­sor­ing.

“‘Smoke Sig­nals’ is an im­por­tant movie for In­dian Coun­try, and to see these beau­ti­fully nu­anced Na­tive Amer­i­can char­ac­ters on the big screen was a rev­e­la­tion for us,” says Vic­tor Rocha, con­fer­ence chair of the Na­tional In­dian Gam­ing Assn. “Not only could we be the stew­ards of our own sto­ries, but it proved we could make great movies.”

Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane In­dian Reser­va­tion, adapted his short story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist­fight in Heaven” into the screen­play, fo­cus­ing on Na­tive Amer­i­can cul­ture, while also craft­ing an in­clu­sive, en­ter­tain­ing and dra­mat­i­cally po­tent piece of sto­ry­telling. “In the mid-’90s, our life’s mis­sion was to make fea­tures, and over four years we got the film ac­com­plished,” re­calls Eyre, who cred­its the Sun­dance In­sti­tute as be­ing cru­cial to the film’s suc­cess. “Sun­dance cul­ti­vates voices and the film was born out of their labs. It wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out their sup­port.”

Alexie has re­cently has been at the cen­ter of sex­ual mis­con­duct charges, and is not ex­pected to at­tend the event.

The movie’s road-trip nar­ra­tive cen­ters on two long-time best friends, por­trayed by ac­tors Adam Beach and Evan Adams, who are very dif­fer­ent as hu­man be­ings and yet share some deep-rooted sim­i­lar­i­ties. An event in their past jump­starts a jour­ney of per­sonal dis­cov­ery, al­low­ing them to step out­side their com­fort zones in an ef­fort to learn more about them­selves.

“‘Smoke Sig­nals’ was an out­let for me to deal with my own par­ents’ deaths from when I was a child,” says Beach, who plays the char­ac­ter Vic­tor to Adams’ Thomas. “Dur­ing that trau­matic end-scene, I wasn’t re­ally act­ing. Chris had to snap me out of that mo­ment be­cause it was so in­tensely per­sonal, and as an ac­tor, it broke down that bar­rier in terms of giv­ing a truth­ful screen per­for­mance.”

The strong sup­port­ing cast helped to de­fine the en­tire film. “I’m so proud of all of the per­for­mances, and I have so many won­der­ful mem­o­ries from the pro­duc­tion,” says Adams, who adds that they “aimed to show true au­then­tic­ity about life on the reser­va­tion.”

Irene Be­drad, who plays a key role as a friend of Vic­tor’s fa­ther, says when she ini­tially read the script, she would have “walked to Los An­ge­les to get the part.” Tan­too Car­di­nal and Elaine Miles pep­pered the film with spir­ited char­ac­ter work, and Car­di­nal says “see­ing the film again on the big screen should be fun and I can’t wait for peo­ple to ex­pe­ri­ence the love we brought to the project.” While Miles says, “the univer­sal na­ture of the story al­lows ev­ery­one to re­late to it one way or an­other. It’s a spe­cial film.”

But what’s dispir­it­ing to note is that there wasn’t a big boom of Na­tive-amer­i­can film­mak­ers who got their chance to tell their sto­ries af­ter “Smoke Sig­nals” helped to pave the way. “The fol­low-up was very shal­low in Hol­ly­wood,” laments Eyre, who adds that “au­di­ences de­serve the Na­tive Amer­i­can ‘Black Pan­ther.’”

But as time marches for­ward, the film con­tin­ues to find cham­pi­ons. Martin Scors­ese re­cently added “Smoke Sig­nals” to his Film Foun­da­tion course cur­ricu­lum, and a bou­tique home en­ter­tain­ment la­bel like would be wise in snag­ging “Smoke Sig­nals” for its li­brary, as it’s yet to re­ceive the “spe­cial edi­tion” treat­ment. “That would be won­der­ful,” says Eyre. “The film de­serves to live long into the fu­ture.”

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