The Exiles (Milestone Films, NR)

dvd_exiles.jpgMuch of the film is narrated with voiceover reflecting the character’s thoughts and feelings, which achieves a poetic quality absent in the spoken dialogue.

In September 1961, Kent Mackenzie’s first feature film, The Exiles, was greeted with critical acclaim at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The Exiles continued to play at festivals for several years, including the first New York Film Festival in 1964, but did not achieve theatrical release and was largely forgotten along with its director who made only one more feature film before his death in 1980.

Then in 2003, Thom Anderson included footage from The Exiles in his documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, and Cindi Rowell, then director of acquisitions at Milestone Films, liked what she saw enough to begin the process of acquiring and releasing the film. It was restored by Ross Lipman (who was also responsible for the restoration of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep) at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and is now available on a two-disc DVD release from Milestone, including much additional material as well as a beautiful print of the film.

The Exiles follows a group of Native Americans through one evening in their life. Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), a young woman pregnant with her first child, wanders through the Grand Central Food Market and eyes goods in the shop windows before trudging home to cook dinner for her husband Homer (Homer Nish) and several friends who live with them. Later, Homer and his friend Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) deposit Yvonne at a movie house and head for a Main Street bar frequented by many other Indians where they drink, play the jukebox, and get into fights. Eventually the men and several girls they have picked up head for a hill overlooking downtown Los Angeles, where they continue drinking but also drum, sing and dance to Indian chants remembered from their lives on the reservation. Finally day breaks and they head for home, waking up Yvonne who spent the night with a girlfriend after leaving the movies.

Mackenzie considered his film to be a documentary, although by current standards it’s more of a docufiction similar to Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran or Nanook of the North in which staged events are used to document a community’s way of life.  The actors are nonprofessionals playing characters similar to themselves (they also participated in writing the script, and some of the scenes feel as if they were partly improvised), and the film was shot in the real locations where the story takes place—in this case, the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles and surrounding areas.

The most outstanding feature of The Exiles is the gorgeous black-and-white photography, shot primarily by Erik Daarstad and John A. Morrill, both of whom were fellow students at USC with Mackenzie and went on to distinguished careers as cinematographers. At its best, The Exiles achieves the same kind of visual poetry found in neorealist classics such as Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) and La terra trema (The Earth Trembles). Mackenzie’s editing is also strong, as is the soundtrack by Anthony Hilder and The Revels (whose music is also featured in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction).

Much of the film is narrated with voiceover reflecting the character’s thoughts and feelings, which achieves a poetic quality absent in the spoken dialogue: The latter is dubbed and frequently not synched with the action. This version of The Exiles also includes a prologue added after the first screenings which features Edward Curtis photographs and a narration underling the meaning of the film’s title. These urban Native Americans are exiled not only from their ancestral lands but also from their own culture. The end result is a cultural document which deserves a viewing and prompts one to wonder why Mackenzie made no further films in this vein:

The Milestone DVD release, which is presented by Sherman Alexie and Charles Burnett, includes many extras including four short films by Ken Mackenzie, a feature commentary track by Sherman Alexie and Sean Axmaker, documentaries about the Bunker Hill neighborhood (now partially leveled and covered with skyscrapers), and the Angels Flight railway which provided access to it, and publicity materials. It’s an excellent package which should reawaken interest in both The Exiles and its director. Further information is available from the film’s website and from the Milestone website. | Sarah Boslaugh


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