A few weeks ago I was talking to a group at Everett Community College about images of American Indians in movies, and the one thing we could all agree on was that — however Hollywood had depicted Indians in the past — the film world needs more stories told by native filmmakers themselves.
Well, that didn’t take long. A Sundance success called “Barking Water” arrives this week and is anything but a polished Hollywood take on the subject.
Shot in writer-director Sterlin Harjo’s native Oklahoma, “Barking Water” is a road movie with an utterly simple style and subject. The central relationship is complicated, however.
In the opening sequence, we see an elderly man, Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman), being wheeled out of a hospital. It’s an escape, not a discharge. We soon learn that Frankie has only a few days left in life, and he’d prefer to make a journey than die in a hospital room.
His driver is Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek), an old flame. They haven’t been together for a while, and they last broke up with some seriously hard feelings. But somehow they belong together on this final trip.
That trip will take three days, with time to visit a few old friends and relatives along the way.
There is absolutely nothing in the story that breaks any particular new ground, save for one late revelation that changes a piece of personal history we’ve heard.
And the film is decidedly ragged around the edges: The dialogue has its clunky moments, and some of the acting is self-conscious. At times the movie threatens to stall out.
But in general, “Barking Water” creates a gentle mood that feels authentic. You never doubt that the details of Indian life — or simply the details of Oklahoma life — are being seen from the inside, with a no-fuss approach that never calls attention to itself.
You begin to feel you’re on the road trip with Frankie and Irene, wedged into the backseat for a drive that is always understated, never melodramatic. All the drama has happened in the past. Now it’s just the reality of death the desire to make amends, and the rolling Western landscapes out the windows.
Sterlin Harjo, still in his 20s, has observed, “When I was younger and wanted to be a filmmaker, I never said, ‘I want to be a Native American filmmaker.’ I just wanted to be a filmmaker.”
He’s right about that, but he’s also proven that he’ll be one of the key voices in creating native images, rather than relying on someone else’s idea of what an Indian is.