For her debut feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, Chinese-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao turned her camera on the beautiful but impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. Anchored by two young leads (Jashaun St. John and John Reddy) who bring to life a tender brother-sister relationship, Zhao’s cast was largely culled from within Pine Ridge, blurring the line between character and actor. Deploying an experimental, collaborative writing approach that drew heavily on the lives and personalities of the cast members, Zhao’s semi-improvised shoot yielded 100 hours of footage, which the director condensed and organized around the story of a young Oglala Lakota man’s plans to leave the reservation. Patient and respectful, even in its unflinching depiction of the crime and alcoholism that plague the community, this evocative, lyrical film explores the complicated relationships its subjects have with their troubled home.
In her interview with Crosscuts, Zhao talks about her DIY approach to the shoot, screening the film on Pine Ridge, and how to practice responsible filmmaking as a cultural outsider. Songs My Brothers Taught Me will screen in the Walker Cinema March 11–13.
I understand your first introduction to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation came through your course work as a political science student at Mount Holyoke College. This is obviously a place with a very potent political and cultural history. What expectations did you have when you first went to Pine Ridge, and what did you find when you got there?
I learned very little about Pine Ridge when I was in college studying politics. I was curious about Pine Ridge, about reservation life, and about the American West. So I went, and I really only learned about the place once I spent time there. I had no idea what to expect, but I found a world very different than my life back in New York City. I knew I desperately wanted to learn more about it.
As late as the summer of 2013, you had a polished, full-length script for a film set on Pine Ridge called Lee. But when financial realities made it impossible to proceed with the project until the following year, you decided to ditch the script and start shooting immediately, working on a much smaller budget with only a film treatment. Beyond obvious things like plot and character, how would this project have been different if funding hadn’t been a problem?
It would be a more traditional narrative story, more fast-paced, but it wouldn’t be as authentic. Even before funding fell through, I was feeling trapped by the script. Once we had nothing—no money, no pressure, almost no crew—we had to go with truth in front of the camera. Because truth was all we could afford. My job was to capture authentic moments Pine Ridge and my cast were giving me and try to navigate a story around it.
I’ve read that you mined your actors’ real lives to construct the film’s narrative, such as in the scene where Jashaun returns to the site of her father’s death, filmed at the actress’s actual home, which had unexpectedly burned down during production. You’ve said John Reddy even considers his character to be about 80 percent actually him. How did this deliberate blending of fiction and biography change the stakes of the film for you? Would you use this strategy again on your next film?
This was an important method specifically for Songs. One, because we had no money to do anything else. Two, because, by staying close to real life, I can help myself, an outsider, to make a film from inside. I’ll definitely use what I’ve learned for my future projects.
I’m intrigued by Eléonore Hendricks’s character, Angie. If I’m reading her correctly, she’s one of the story’s only characters not originally from Pine Ridge; when we first meet her, she’s pointing a camera at your co-lead, Johnny Winters. Was your own position as an outsider to Pine Ridge something you consciously chose to explore in this film? Was Angie a locus of this kind of thematic work?
Yes. Angie was, like myself, one of the many photographers, filmmakers, and journalists who pointed their lens towards the reservation. The lucky ones ended up learning something about themselves along the way. She left in the end, like all of us did. It was those who remained [that] we celebrate in this film.
Following stops at Sundance and Cannes, Songs My Brothers Taught Me made its premiere on Pine Ridge this past summer. What kinds of reactions did you get from members of that community?
A lot more laughter. They got the jokes more. People generally really enjoyed it. I had parents coming up to me to say that it was hard for them to watch at some point, because it reminded them that they need to take more care of their young ones. There were good conversations afterwards. I can’t wait for DVD/VOD, so everyone on the reservation can see it.
You’ve said you’d like to make your next film in the Midwest, as well. Do you have any ideas about the direction that project might take? What did you learn making Songs that you expect to apply to your work in the future?
I have two films in development, both set in the Midwest and also the West. I live in Colorado now. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from Songs is to follow my curiosity. Because it usually leads me to the right people and places.