Selected to premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival and for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2009, The Exiles (1961) is an incredible feature film by Kent Mackenzie chronicling a day in the life of a group of twenty-something Native Americans who left reservation life in the 1950s to live in the district of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, California. Bunker Hill was then a blighted residential locality of decayed Victorian mansions, sometimes featured in the writings of Raymond Chandler, John Fante and Charles Bukowski. The structure of the film is that of a narrative feature, the script pieced together from interviews with the documentary subjects.
The film features Yvonne Williams, Homer Nish, and Tommy Reynolds. The film shares a curious number of surface similarities with Charles Burnett’s legendary Killer of Sheep: they were both gritty, frills-free depictions of marginalized Los Angeles communities made within about a decade from each other by young filmmakers who were both compared to John Cassavetes and Vittorio De Sica, they both have existed for decades without theatrical release, they both have been featured in Thom Andersen’s film Los Angeles Plays Itself, they both have been restored by Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archives and they both are Milestone Film & Video releases.
One of the significant distinctions between The Exiles and Killer of Sheep is that Mackenzie (unlike Burnett) was a definitive outsider to the community he was filming–he was a well-to-do white man from the East coast amongst Native Americans, Mexicans and Filipinos in a low-income L.A. community. Regardless, his sensitivity and his genuinely penetrating interest in attempting to understand the people in his film via filming them shines through (he, like Burnett, involved the stars of the film in the writing and filming process), curbing the tendencies towards sentimentalism and fetishization that often emerge in attempts to represent “the other.” Despite (or because of) the fact that no other films at the time were (and still very few now are) depicting Native American peoples (aside from the overblown stereotypes in Westerns) let alone urban Native Americans, The Exiles could not find a distributor willing to risk putting it out theatrically, and so over the years it fell into obscurity, known and loved by cinephiles and admired for its originality and honesty by such Native American filmmakers as Chris Eyres (Smoke Signals, 1998) and Ben-alex Dupris (experimental filmmaker and writer) but remaining largely unseen to the public, including communities like the ones depicted in the film.
“One of the greatest cinematic rediscoveries in recent years, Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 masterpiece The Exiles is a revelatory landmark of American cinema, with its vivid, unflinching look at young Native Americans seeking escape from their lives in a run-down section of Los Angeles.” – Fandor
“Kent Mackenzie’s magnificent, long-undistributed, unclassifiable first feature, The Exiles, stands as a rare consideration of the inner and outer lives of American Indians in a big American city.” – Boston Globe
“A prime exemplar of its vibrant moment, and deserves recognition alongside the other American independent features (ON THE BOWERY, SHADOWS, THE COOL WORLD) that tested the commercial viability of the nascent festival circuit… The final product resembles a master’s thesis: it demonstrates the depth of the candidate’s research and vouches for his formal sensitivity.” – Cine File
- 8/27 | 8:00PM