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Monday, 27 June 2016

Sydney Film Festival (21) - Max Berghouse reports on MEKKO (Sterlin Harjo, USA, 2015, 84 minutes)

I saw  Mekko at its first, daytime showing at the Event Cinema, where it was introduced firstly by the head of the indigenous unit of AFTRS and then by the director, Sterlin Harjo himself. The cinema itself is large and it was scarcely full of viewers which is perhaps partly explained by the daytime showing. My companion at the performance thought that she had overheard the director expressing surprise and disappointment at such a small audience. Of course there is no accounting for taste and interest.  But, albeit quite a "small" film it is extremely well worth watching.
Firstly this is a film well worth being introduced as an "indigenous" film. In a way that for example Goldstone is not. In that latter film indigenous people appear, but they are neither central nor relevant to the plot. They could be anyone. As previously mentioned in my review of that film, the scenes of "aboriginality" are at worst a cheap stunt, and at best simply superficial "appliqué". This present film is entirely concerned with American Indians and their travails in modern society as well as the intersection of everyday life with traditional spiritual beliefs.
Secondly, for myself, my understanding of America comes from very limited travels to the advanced east and west coasts of the country and my "poetic" understanding of the country is built on cinema which has largely reflected the geography and values of those, the wealthiest parts of the country. So seeing a completely different area, in this case the city of Tulsa in the state of Oklahoma, formerly called as the director said "Indian Country" was something of a revelation. Although the film concerns down and outs, living rough in presumably the poor areas of the city, it has a superb sense of place. In particular various "settings" look absolutely natural, without the slightest degree of artifice. These are the meeting and sleeping places of the homeless, all I think Indian.
The film concerns Mekko, played superbly by the Hollywood stunt performer Rod Rondeaux, a full-blood Indian himself, just released from prison after 19 years for the accidental death in a mutual alcohol binge of his cousin, even when young a noted painter. Unable to gain reconciliation with his surviving family, he is forced onto the street and to some extent saved by an old friend, also homeless, Bunnie, (Wotko Long, who has, I think, appeared in the director's previous films). The actor Mr Rondeaux has a weatherbeaten face and tall,ramrod straight gait with rail like body. He looks quite ravaged, like a long-term drinker. It is an excellent performance, totally lived in.
At the camp for the homeless, Mekko meets Bill a vicious and malevolent semi gangster with clear mental problems who abuses other homeless people under the guise of "protecting" them. This role is played by Zahn McClarmon, an actor whom I was surprised to learn is as old as 49, and whom I know only from the television series Fargo, played with luminous intensity. Mekko perceives him to be a shape shifting demon as understood from the spiritual lore of his Indian people, the Creek nation. It is here that I find the strongest evidence of "indigenous relevance" because it is not that Mekko actually believes that Bill IS a demon, rather that it helps him to conceptualise and understand reality, just as a Christian would take the view that a deeply sinful person is "evil". This conceptualisation is delicately and subtly handled, appearing to be a perfectly rational view and certainly not done with any attempt to indicate a "higher" understanding by indigenous people.
The culmination of the conflict between the two men results in an overwhelming act of violence by Mekko; he kills Bill and removes his still warm heart and casts it into the river, an apparently religious act. Our advanced Western perceptions of Bill' s evil meshes perfectly with the killer's conception.
The film ends on a modestly optimistic note that the protagonist and the young Native American, Allen, whom Mekko is protecting – against himself, returning to his original home, albeit abandoned.
Photography is excellent and captures perfectly the empty days, the drunken nights and poverty as well as the individual and collective attempts to maintain dignity. Rod Rondeaux's performance is a standout. He really knows the wariness necessary for an ex con. Most of the other performances are also excellent although demands on them are limited. One or two, clearly performances by amateurs are a bit lame.
There is some voice-over in the Creek language which because it is unusual, has a certain haunting and poetic beauty which overcomes my general antipathy to voice-over. The soundtrack together with the use of tribal chants and songs is very moving. I did notice one or possibly two, in my opinion continuity faults but this did not disturb the flow of the film nor its emotional impact.

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