Manufacturing 'Authentic' Talk for Film
"The Exiles" combines the spontaneous with the premeditated, creating its own special language from the mouths of Native Americans in Bunker Hill. The quasi-documentary is set for DVD release in spring.
We would make use of all the stutterings, overlaps, and other normal elements of the Indians' speech patterns.
Kent Mackenzie's film The Exiles comments on the authentic and the artificial aspects of the lives of Native Americans in Bunker Hill (downtown Los Angeles) in the late 1950s, while using a mixture of improvised and premeditated footage and sound to document a day there. Mackenzie, then a recent University of Southern California film school graduate, and associates followed a group of Native Americans as they acted and reenacted their errands, partying, and fights. A restoration of the 1961 film by UCLA Film & Television Archive preservationist Ross Lipman has been screening at theaters and will be released on DVD in the spring of 2009.
After filming scripted scenes, Mackenzie realized that the less he told his actors what to do or say, the better the scenes turned out. According to John Morrill, one of the cinematographers, the director's secret was to "never ask real people to do something they wouldn't do. They become conscious of the camera." The purpose of the film was to avoid glorifying or romanticizing the actors' stories and the way they lived.
In keeping with his goal of authenticity, Mackenzie wanted to film his actor-subjects—Homer Nish, Yvonne Williams, and Tommy Reynolds, three "exiles" from reservations of the Southwest—talking in the way that they normally talked, in English and their Native American languages. In his film school thesis, he wrote, "We decided that we would attempt to achieve the qualities of life like speech in the dialog. We would make use of all the stutterings, overlaps, and other normal elements of the Indians' speech patterns." Although the film is primarily in English, the other, unidentified languages are spoken without subtitles or translation. Mackenzie believed that the "quality of the languages was more important than the specific meanings of words."
What audiences saw on the screen was improvised, but what they heard was recorded long after the fact. Unable to soften the sounds of the L.A. streets with the day's technology, Mackenzie was forced to set aside the original audio and dub the entire film over. Everything from the dialogue and traditional chants to shouts, screams, and the sounds of the street had to be reproduced in a studio. A record of every line had been kept and each person reread his or her own lines. Mackenzie tried to remain as faithful to the original as possible. But in the end the audio and speech, like lighting in documentary films, were contrived to conceal the filmmakers' manipulations. As it happened, achieving the appearance of natural light was another challenge. For lack of battery-powered, portable lighting, the crew resorted to using automobile lights.
Other aspects of the story, such as the marriage between Homer and Yvonne, were intentionally fabricated. Originally, Mackenzie had cast Yvonne's real husband, but as filming proceeded, the story centered around Yvonne as the leading lady and Homer, who stood out as the strongest character. Mackenzie recast Homer as Yvonne’s husband to avoid focusing too much on peripheral characters and confusing the audience.
Mackenzie's struggle to create an authentic representation of Native Americans in Bunker Hill mirrors the way this group was losing its own culture and traditions in an urban setting. On reservations, the characters' chants would have served as part of communal gatherings and be understood by both participants and spectators. In Los Angeles, the actors' renditions were staged and then dubbed over in Native languages that the film doesn't identify.
Decades after Mackenzie's death, Lipman had access to the original recordings but chose the dubbed version for the film’s restoration. He said he stuck with the dubbed audio because it was "an integral part of the film's making."
Published: Thursday, December 04, 2008