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Smoke Signals is a critically-acclaimed independent film created, starred and produced by Native Americans. The story revolves around the characters of two Indian-Americans namely Victor and Thomas who together went into a journey in the hope of bringing back the ashes of the dead father of Victor in a place far away from their home – the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. In the course of the journey, they unexpectedly discovered what it takes to be a truly native Indian-American through series of reflections and life-experiences throughout their road trip. However, despite the seemingly cultural theme of the movie – that is by depicting the life and existence of the Native Americans, the movie offers a human element in the sense that it does not only focus on the stories of their cultures and traditions, but rather it tackles also in a large perspectives to the struggles, real–life experiences and concerns of ordinary people despite their lineage as Native Americans. Hence, the movie excel both in indirectly charting the long time issue in the U.S. regarding the acceptance and understanding of the way of life of the Native Americans including the Indians from the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and their integration into the mainstream society as well as the more important focus of the film which is the intention of the writers and director for the viewers tohave a deep realization of their similarities with the non-native Americans in terms of their human and personal experiences.
Further, the movie shows some of the most widely-known and understood misconceptions or stereotypes about the Native Americans – both Indians and Non-Indians. One of the stereotypes about Native Americans’ pertains to their characterization. Native Indian-Americans are perceived to be stoic or indifferent persons, and usually the depressed victims that historical Indian cinema portray. However, with this film it can be deduced that the writer tried to convey the message that the Native Indians are the “most joyous people in the world” by showing the humorous conversation and happy disposition especially depicted in the character of Thomas. This is to instill consciousness in the minds of the viewers regardless of ancestry and cultural origin that Indians and non-Indians are alike in terms of simple pleasures; that having a different cultural background does not mean Indian-Americans have a different way of enjoying life. They are molded in the same manner like any other ordinary people experiencing normal existence as a human being.
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Additionally, the contemporary American Indian characters tend to show their characters as warriors, hunters, savage creature, etc., however, in this movie, by creating the character of Thomas and Victor, the film shows not only the Coeur d’Alene Reservation and the way of life and cultural behavior of their people but more so that Indian Americans are ordinary human beings faced with conventional human situations. In this film, the writer humanizes what otherwise Indian Americans are contemporarily known for – that they are human beings with similar circumstances with those of us. In terms of physical attributes, they are perceived to have identical look, wearing traditional suit and hairstyle. This is shown in the conversation between the main protagonists and when Victor opined that Thomas must “shed his suit and let his hair be free-flowing” in order that the latter may accompany him in his journey to Phoenix. As non-member of their tribe, the conventional society view Indian-Americans as a typical member of an ethnic group with exotic and usually unusual way of life in terms of their practice and even physical appearance. Thus, Victor even has to point out to Thomas that in order for the latter to travel with him, he has to cope and conduct himself in a manner by which the mainstream society will accept. This is indicative of the assumption that Victor will be considered differently and contrarily to the usual acceptable norm in the society if he shows his true ancestry as a Native American, even on a physical aspect. Impliedly, there is also a negative connotation that the Native Americans view Americans as a whole as being culturally insensitive and despite the existence of these natives within the American society for a long time, there is still a gap that sought to be bridged in terms of universal societal acceptance.
The themes of the movie revolves around father-son relationship, the story of hope and forgiveness and what it takes to be Indian and more importantly as a human being in the larger sense. In fact, as previously emphasized, the movie was never meant to be a plain and typical Indian cinematic presentation of their culture and heritage, but rather it focuses on a very simple and unpretentious plot revolving around father-son relationships which have gone astray because of a family conflict. Normal existence of complications within a family is shown using the example of the Victor’s one. It displayed the abuses suffered by Victor in the hands of his father when he was still a child prior to the abandonment. Thereafter, it revealed the anguish, hate and longing of a son and a family who have been abandoned by the man – whom they consider as their strength and the pillar of the family. Hence, it would be easy to understand the contempt and the hate that Victor felt when he suffered the physical abuse and the eventual abandonment of his own father. Although towards the end of this story, the internal conflict in the character of Victor was resolved, enabling him to forgive and understand why the things happened so in the movie.
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The story of hope and forgiveness is another theme which is very noticeable in the movie. Hope emerged in the continued pursuit of bringing forth the ashes of the loved one home through the journey to the unknown land. Hope is stirred in the movie when Victor was eager to understand the reasons why his own father had to leave. Moreover, the character of Thomas is the epitome of forgiveness – knowing that the father of Victor was responsible for the death of his own parents – he still found a place in his heart to forgive and be happy for his decision. In fact, this knowledge was obtained even prior to the journey with Victor. Furthermore, he even offered to loan the latter with the money to defray the expenses for their travel. That is an unselfish act of forgiveness, to be able to show compassion for the family of the man who caused the misfortune and misery of losing the dearest persons in his life.
Personally, the thematic presentation of what it takes to be an Indian and more importantly as a human being is the core subject which stood out among it all. This has been shown through the journey of Victor and Thomas which have discovered the innermost feelings and dispositions of both characters. Both protagonists constantly talked about the importance of family, traditions, ancestors and values especially from their descent and the vagaries of life that indigenous people like them experienced from the people that surround them and the society as a whole. In this sense, the stereotypical attitudes relative to their Indian-American ancestry and culture have been tackled carefully and sensibly so that the message is sent across the thin dividing line between the Native Americans and those of the Indian-American people. This was done artfully in the sense that the movie is both an exploration of a sensitive topic on understanding the native traditions and heritage and a presentation of a simple and ordinary portrayal of true-to-life experiences between and among the characters.
Initially, the character of Victor shows a mixture of contempt and hostility on the one hand and love and compassion towards his father on the other hand. In the end however, his journey with Thomas to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of his dead father enabled him to reflect and resolve his long-time grudge against his father. The role of Thomas takes a central stage, since the latter was a big part of Victor’s realization that the son-father relationship is something to be treasured and forgiveness is a part of burying the past. Victor in the end of the film confronted himself with the logical reasons why his father had to leave him and his mother. When asked, Victor just simply said that “He didn’t mean to.” This emphasize that he understood the shortcomings of his father. Thomas however showed kindness and understanding even knowing that Victor’s father is responsible for the death of her parents.
The idea of redemption has come into play in this movie in the sense that Victor, who was once driven with hate and hostility towards his father because of the violence inflicted upon him early on in his life and the eventual abandonment by his father, was able to see the reasons and the root cause of such reckless actions and which prompted him to move on and understand wholeheartedly the circumstances by which his family went through. Moreover, redemption has also spawned out of his allowance to continue with the journey with Thomas, and who have shown the willingness to forgive despite the misfortune suffered by his family brought about by the fire incident that killed his parents.
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Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre.Perf. Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, and Gary Farmer.Miramax, 1998.Film.
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