Ernie Webb recalls watching western movies when he was a child growing up in James Bay. ‘We always cheered for the cowboys,’ says Webb, who is an aboriginal, ‘even when they were killing Indians.’
Those experiences were formative for Webb, who has produced a range of film and TV projects in Montreal, some of which deal with aboriginal themes, including the Showcase series Moose TV. He says many native people end up learning all sorts of erroneous things about their own culture via Hollywood’s twisted representations.
So he is producing Reel Injun, a feature-length doc about the history of those representations, with Neil Diamond directing. ‘We were very impressed with The Celluloid Closet, the documentary that looks at how gays were represented in film, so we thought the same thing should be done about natives in film,’ says Webb.
Reel Injun, which Webb hopes to premiere at next September’s Toronto International Film Festival, includes interviews with actors Wes Studi and Adam Beach, filmmakers Zacharius Kunuk (Atanarjuat) and Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man), Toronto-based critic Jesse Wente, and a rare appearance by Sacheen Littlefeather, the woman Marlon Brando sent to the Oscar ceremony in 1973 to decline his Oscar win for The Godfather.
‘Littlefeather has never really told her story about that Oscar night,’ Webb says. ‘Now she’s getting the chance.’
Webb hopes Reel Injun will be the definitive text on the history of aboriginal representations in the movies. A $1.5-million coproduction of his Montreal company Rezolution Pictures and the National Film Board, he’s secured a broadcast on the CBC (after a theatrical run). But Webb says that when he thinks of what the target audience for Reel Injun is, he thinks back to the Cree community he grew up with in James Bay. ‘That’s who I consider our primary audience. I just want them to be proud of what we’re doing.’