Every one in a while, a film comes around that so bluntly and creatively rejects the dominant form of documentary expression, it feels like something brand new. INAATE/SE/, the debut feature by brothers Adam and Zack Khalil, is one of those revelations. Yet neither the story they tell nor the way they express it to the audience is entirely original. It has simply been neglected, warped by centuries of dishonest narrative and colonial expression. The chief accomplishment of the Khalil brothers is their refusal to succumb to any of these pressures, instead blending their own personal ingenuity with a way of seeing the world that emerges from their culture.
INAATE/SE/ takes the loose form of a lived history of the Ojibway people in what is now Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It encompasses seven generations, beginning before the first contact with white colonists and concluding with the present revival of interest among young people in their ancestral language and traditions. Yet that description really only makes sense from above, looking down on the film as if it were a flat map. The actual experience of watching it is quite different, its linearity fractured by an array of consciously unmooring decisions on the part of its directing team. Typical documentary techniques are introduced and dismantled, the information within shaped by a deeper knowledge of the essence of this story.
For example, the Khalil brothers reject the basic structures of white American history. They resist dates and other linear markers of time, instead calling attention to circularity and repetition. The principal subject of the film is the Seven Fires Prophecy, a series of seven foretellings that were given to each generation of the Ojibway. They speak of the arrival of white men, the violence committed against Ojibway people and their culture, and their eventual revival. This is, on paper, something of a linear narrative. Yet the Khalil brothers don’t try to assign each prophet a particular period. Each prophecy introduces phenomena that have affected the Ojibway people in different ways, many of which persist.
One quote, repeated toward the end of the film, captures the essence of this approach. “Everything the power of the world does is done in a circle.” This way of conceiving of history is very new to dominant forms of American nonfiction storytelling. The impact is felt even in the more technical aspects of the film’s aesthetic. The Khalil brothers spend a great deal of time at local archives, outposts of the dominant interpretation of the past. As they discuss the navigational development of the town with the local historian, they begin to show the still archival images so common in historical documentary. Yet, just as the familiarity might begin to glaze over the eyes, these images begin to repeat. Linearity is replaced with a cyclical approach to landscape, as different images of the same islands and bridges form an irregular, hypnotic montage. It’s more redolent of the experimental cinema of Gregory Markopoulous than Ken Burns.
Things dissolve even further when the Khalil brothers arrive at Sault Ste. Marie’s ominous Tower of History, a 210-foot museum that dominates the skyline. There they encounter a tour guide, a white history enthusiast whose commitment to the dominant story of benevolent Catholic missionaries will serve as a catalyst for his dramatic transformation into the film’s unwittingly comic image of villainy. They also find an orientation video, just as much of an aesthetic standby of American history as the archival montage. They recut it, rearranging the words of the reenactors to form blunt, honest statements of the brutal repression of “savagery” that they committed.
It matters not to the Khalil brothers that this particular video is also of notably low quality. Unity of format is yet another item on the long list of elements to which they refuse to submit. Late sequences in the film approach the subject of the vision quest with heavy use of green screen and makeshift psychedelia. Throughout the film, the Seven Fires Prophecies are depicted through the use of beautiful illustrations, tacked on top of landscapes and rushing water. The film’s most harrowing sequence is on video of about the same vintage as the one from the Tower of History, shot by a relative of the brothers a number of years ago.
It features a trip to a nearby Jesuit boarding school, which operated until the Church sold it in 1961. The building itself is a husk, the victim of a fire in the late 1960s. Before that, however, it was a place of a much more secret terror. The issue of abuse by priests in these sorts of schools is a major topic of conversation in Canada, but remains under-discussed in the United States. Yet that doesn’t make it any less true, or any less horrifying. The video featured by the Khalil brothers includes the memories of those in it, stories of traumatic childhood at the hands of powerful clergy. The work of Christian missionaries in Ojibway territory was never of a predominantly benevolent character.
This upsetting truth, for it is truth, is a reminder of perhaps the film’s most crucial nuance. The resistance to the dominant historical language is not the same thing as rejection of history itself. The Khalil brothers may not be focused on dates, but they are committed to showing truth all the same. The Birchbark Scrolls, a repository of traditional Ojibway knowledge that was created and hidden in a prior generation to protect it from the outside world, are a good example. They may never be found. The audience may not even be sure they were hidden in the first place. Yet the physical texts themselves are not as important as the lesson imparted by their story: the real need of the Ojibway people to hide and safeguard their traditions.
The Khalil brothers resist stereotypes, as well, but with an equally layered approach that challenges the audience. A visit with a local man on the reservation, who sits uncomfortably close to the stereotype of the loud Indian drunk, is juxtaposed with a scene at a nearby casino where white Michiganders gather at a Bret Michaels concert to drink just as much beer with nowhere near as much clarity of purpose. The native alcoholic is neither excused nor dispensed with, but instead stands for himself in a film so thoroughly built upon honest displays of character.
The music is equally assertive, sometimes almost so loud it is heard to hear the narration underneath it. It’s a wide blend of sounds, some of them electronic and very contemporary. There is no powwow music. This is a film that looks forward, into the seventh generation and the future of the Ojibway people. Unlike the Tower of History or even the National Museum of the American Indian, which can present Ojibway artifacts as if they come from a people entirely in the past, the Khalil brothers use their history as a way to see into the future. The result, boosted by an extended sequence of traditional medicine, vision quests and a green screen trip into a brightly colored realm of new consciousness, is as vital as it is trippy. With its rambunctious, revolutionary style, INAATE/SE/ is as lucid a dream of the future as any historical documentary has ever been.