One of the greatest joys of attending a film festival is the sense of discovery when you come across a film that you know nothing about. Pine Ridge, a documentary by first-time director Anna Eborn, playing here at Hot Docs in Toronto, is just that film for me. I haven’t heard anyone talking about it. Eborn, who comes from Sweden, seems to be unknown here, and she betrays little knowledge of the U.S. documentary scene. Pine Ridge premiered at the Venice film festival where I imagine the documentaries are screened in box crates in a back alley before 10 AM. It’s also been to MoMA’s Doc Fortnight. But, still, the film hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Let me introduce you.
Pine Ridge is a beautiful, impressionistic film that depicts the bleak life of Native American youth who live on the titular South Dakota reservation. It doesn’t tell a story in the conventional sense. It doesn’t develop its characters. It skips from one young person to another, giving us just enough time to get a sense of the subjects and their particular plight — disconsolate street toughs hanging out, a young mom with few prospects, the boy whose sister committed suicide — and then moves on to the next.
There’s almost a pointlessness (which, yes, matches the subjects’ lives) to the film that began to frustrate me. Eborn makes no attempt to create individual narrative arcs for her subjects and I feared she could end up dehumanizing them by blending their individuality into one character: the desolate Pine Ridge child.
But, to her credit, Eborn is sticking to her guns. “I think the opposite is worse,” she told me on a park bench while French filmmakers noisily convened nearby. “Digging into a person’s life and cranking it up, you can’t capture the true spectrum of a person. I wasn’t compelled to do this.”
Eborn, who has been working in the film industry in Denmark, said she fought over this tension with the Danish Film Institute, which provided her funding. They wanted arcs. She refused.
Eborn is tough. And her film, which is filled with gorgeous shots of sunlight rippling off her desperate subjects (the wet pony tail of a Lakota boy, a young mother cleaning garbage) is unsparing; a young girl nearly brains a kitten (Eborn assures me the cat was OK), a woman reveals her history of sexual abuse and is quickly dispatched. She says she wanted the film to be like a relay race, where the stick is passed from one runner to the next. This was her structure and she stuck to it.
It reminded me of how in Richard Linklater’s Slacker the camera floats from one story to the next — but Austin’s humor-infused ennui is replaced by isolation and sadness. Adults are almost entirely absent from the film, and that put me in the mind of Only the Young or Tchoupitoulas, two of several recent documentaries that follow the lives of youth with similar stylish vérité. (But it doesn’t place it in what I’ve called The New Doc Vague, where these films sometimes verge too close to ethical lines by providing misleading information or an irresponsible lack of context.)
Eborn, who is 31, has several films in progress — one about Palestinians, and another in Colombia. She doesn’t have a sales agent here at Hot Docs (Film Republic is representing Pine Ridge overseas). And she’s literally uncomfortable with the spotlight — after the screening I attended, she stepped out of the spotlight, which she called “annoying,” and answered questions in the shadows. She is comfortable doing her own thing.
But her film, an incredibly rare window into the Native American youth, could go unseen. That would be a shame. Eborn and I discussed why there is so little funding, programs or media attention given to her subjects. It’s terribly sad. I hope her film doesn’t get similar treatment here.
I’m not saying it’s a film without flaws. There are a few clichés and the film veers toward a fetishization of the Indian. But if that romantic notion can compel more people to see the film, I guess it’s worth it.
I should close by saying that after watching the ruthless Pine Ridge, I may have fallen into despair myself, but she mercifully throws viewers a bone at the very end of the film, after the credits begin to roll. She shows two clips: one of a particularly tragic boy experiencing a touching moment of joy and another, of two young children having fun. With those two scenes, the audience has something to cling to. Whether that’s right or not, I am not sure, but I was grateful.
Pine Ridge has one more screening at Hot Docs, on May 4, and you can see where it’s going here. Of course, one of the biggest downers about a film festival discovery is the fear that that film won’t receive the attention it deserves. I hope that that the same plight of these kids doesn’t also happen to Pine Ridge.