Film shot entirely in the Blackfoot language, on tribal lands to be previewed | Arts & Theater


BRIAN D’AMBROSIO for the Missoulian

Viewers of “Sooyii” are invited to disrupt their own language habits and critically re-apprehend language and the space it occupies.

Shot entirely on the lands of the Blackfeet tribe, the dialogue of “Sooyii” is delivered in the ancestral language of its people, the first film to be produced in such a form. Those associated with the production hope it won’t be the last of its kind.

“I believe ‘Sooyii’ is a message to Hollywood, to directors, producers and, even to our own people, to set the bar by including the Indigenous language in the film,” said Jesse DesRosier, who translated the script. in Blackfoot and appeared in the film.

DesRosier, a Blackfoot language teacher at Cuts Wood School in Browning and Blackfeet Community College, explained the principles and structure of Pied Noirs to the cast. “Sooyii” carries a deep sense of urgency, for the Blackfoot language, he said, is in great danger of being erased, of becoming a dying artefact of culture.

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“We are in a fight against time, with seniors who are dying …” said DesRosier. “The film is the starting point for all people to learn an Aboriginal language in Montana.”

Dark splendor

Conceptually and historically, “Sooyii” is a powerful art exhibit, however, with its plot of a young Pikuni man, Creature Hunter, witnessing the devastation wrought to his community by the horribly contagious spread of the deadly smallpox. and disfiguring. There isn’t much here that can be called a “pretty” picture.

Montana Film Festival: Big Sky and Beyond

“We knew how beautiful Montana would be,” said director and screenwriter Krisztian Kery. “But the story is not beautiful. We had to have the discussion, how not to make a landscape film and not to confuse the two ideas (of the beauty of Montana and the harshness of the scenario). The land itself was beautiful and we shouldn’t hide it. But the earth also had to be hard in a way. Items that sick people need cross the lake to stay away from the village and not infect healthy people. The scenario was very dark. It’s a sad story. “

“Sooyii” was filmed outside Dupuyer in Swift Lake. A gravel road leading to the dam provided the easiest access to filming locations, much of it on the land of stuntman and actor Pat Judge Hall (who plays a Pikuni elder in a flashback scene). Hall’s ranch formed the backdrop to the unmistakably mystical river and mountain vistas; his shop becomes the makeshift workshop where the interior scenes are made. Nineteen days of filming took place in July and August 2020.

Indeed, one of the key elements adding a layer of squeaky realism and wistful conscience to “Sooyii” is that it was shot on the ancestral land of the Blackfeet people.

“For my ancestors, they were fortunate to retain part of our traditional homeland,” DesRosier said. “Few tribes in the United States and Canada have been able to do this.”

In this, the story of “Sooyii” in a way, simultaneously eclipses the views of the camera.

“The script covered most of the scenery,” said stunt coordinator Danny Edmo, a Browning High School graduate and accomplished bull rider. “At first you notice the landscape, then you don’t notice it at some point. Filming took place in two locations, basically, and it was amazing filming there every day for about four weeks.

Language of hope

DesRosier said that as a young boy he spoke the Blackfoot language out of curiosity and his mother spoke it frequently in the family home. As an adult, his father opened up to it as well, eventually having studied it enough to say a full Blackfoot prayer.

The tongue offered Jesse a sanctuary for his own being, an identity, and a connection to his past. Now 33 years old, his commitment to his survival is non-negotiable.

To use the Blackfoot language in the film, Jesse recorded all of the dialogue and the production crew sent those recordings to the cast, allowing about four weeks of prep time before filming began. A few actors had a basic knowledge of the language, although most of them were not very familiar.

“I found out which actors were studying their lines and which were not,” DesRosier said. “I rated all the actors, and for those who were having a hard time, I started adjusting some lines, shortened them to make it sound as precise as possible. People will be impressed with the work that the actors are doing there. put.

Teaching anyone any language is a big challenge. DesRosier compared his experience training multi-accented actors on the set of “Sooyii” to the task of preparing children at one of the local immersion schools for a Christmas-themed play.

“Every Christmas, the kids play an entire play at Blackfoot,” DesRosier said. “We try to start the practice a month and a half outside, to have them work two to six hours a day on their lines. This is so that they feel comfortable saying them, and that they understand and internalize them fully.

Nonetheless, DesRosier, the director and the cast of “Sooyii” effectively merged the juxtaposition of speech, culture and art.

“Jesse recorded all of the dialogue so the actors could listen, first slowly, then at a steady pace, then put it phonetically,” said producer Paige Rasmussen. “He coached the actors on the days of intense dialogue. The crew even picked up a bit of Blackfoot here and there. For me, the preservation of the language was an important reason to be part of the project.

Statistically, DesRosier estimated that there were approximately 50 or fewer first language speakers in the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. The Blackfoot Confederacy, he explained, contains three other groups in Alberta, Canada, and there are many more Blackfoot speakers if those numbers were to be factored in. Further, the number does not adequately reflect all of the children or young learners or members of the community who in one way or another apply their interest in experiencing it.

“There is the start of a resurgence of the Blackfoot language in our school (Cuts Woods) and immersion classes in public schools and at Flathead Valley Community College, where people are ready to learn and understand. the importance of language, ”he said. “This film will only help promote that.

Hungary-Montana link

Kery met Edmo, a native of Browning, on the set of the 2013 movie “The Lone Ranger”. By this point, Kery had starred in a significant number of European and American television and film shows as a stunt performer.

Edmo had also performed stunts in several films, mostly westerns (he also plays actor Johnny Depp in “The Lone Ranger”.)

“Krisztian had a script about the natives of the east coast,” Edmo said, “and after talking about it I said, ‘How about talking about black feet and the history of smallpox? “

Eager to go, Kery jumped at the offer with zeal and gratitude. He would create something in a native language of a tribe in Montana, with a village behind him.

“Growing up European, my country (Hungary) was occupied by the Russians for 30 years,” Kery said. “It wasn’t until 1989 that we learned about the history of the United States and I’ve always been fascinated by Native Americans. Why have they always been portrayed as bad guys? Where do they come from? … I learned that the Spaniards brought horses and trade and how tribes got weapons, horses from Europeans, and that was an interesting part of that story to me.

“How does a person first meet a horse or understand a horse? There was a time when the Blackfeet didn’t know how to experience or understand them. I met Danny (Edmo) and Judge Hall through the horses. They said if I wanted to make a movie about their story they would put me in touch with the right people. I rode to Heart Butte on Hall’s property, and they were thrilled that someone wants to come in from the outside and make a movie about their life. “

In the film, no Europeans are present, but the creature hunter’s village is brutally ravaged by the effects of the smallpox virus, “the same curse” that accompanied their arrival. There’s another heavy subplot that sheds light on the vicious conflict between the Blackfeet and the Shoshone.

“Shoshone learned about biological warfare and gained ground by eliminating people with smallpox,” Kery said. “If you survived you were fine and you would never have it again.” But the Shoshone used it as a method to eliminate different camps… Horses were introduced into the Blackfeet by the Shoshone. Before the Europeans arrived (in western Montana), the Blackfoot had never seen a European, but they had the smallpox virus, and they had horses and some weapons even before they encountered any Europeans. Europeans.

Telling and topical

Stunt coordinator Edmo said the intrigues of “Sooyii” – ethnic conflict, the curse of a plague, the dark spirit of human exploitation – are both historic and strangely topical.

“The story, for me, is about persistence and how we all managed to survive,” Edmo said. “But with the warriors chasing the girl (Pretty Creature Woman, an unexpected ally of Creature Hunter), there’s also a comparison to human trafficking and missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“There are two stories in a situation. Two important things are happening: smallpox is destroying our people and the missing and murdered indigenous women, and trafficking. Both situations concern the will to survive.

The content of the film is vast, impenetrable, abject and pathological in its connotations. Indeed, “Sooyii” could be seen as a tangled story, tied to an existential nightmare, waiting for its darkness to be deconstructed in the deepening night.

Outside of trauma and ordeal, there is the deep harmony of Blackfoot that vibrates in the mix, the language of legacy and destiny, resurrection and chronicle, the varied dimensions of his character and his. continuous influence.

“Just trying this movie was a big deal,” DesRosier said. “This is the first time that the Blackfoot language has been spoken this way on a film, and it will inspire generations now, and it will be saved in time forever. It will allow people who want to learn and critics. Nothing negative can come for it. Native speakers might criticize some pronunciations, but that only gives more possibilities for dialogue. “

Brian D’Ambrosio is a journalist and licensed private investigator. His next book, “Montana Eccentrics”, will be released in the spring. He can be reached at [email protected]

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