The back story to the film “The Exiles” is worthy of being its own film – independently produced in 1958, it was completed in 1961 and spent three years on the festival circuit without getting a theatrical pick-up (and that’s with having a praise-rich review by the notorious Pauline Kael). It wound up as a 16mm educational film for a few years before disappearing into oblivion. It had a very brief inclusion in the documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” that spurred a buzz, leading to a full restoration and a long overdue theatrical release.
How can you top a story like that? Even without that remarkable odyssey, “The Exiles” is still worthy of attention for its unusually frank and blunt view of American Indians who have failed to assimilate into the mainstream white society. Filmmaker Kent Mackenzie used non-professional Indians living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles as his cast, tapping into their personal stories and struggles. (In 1961, this style of filmmaking was considered to be a documentary, despite the presence of a script and obviously staged sequences.)
“The Exiles” looks at three people who appear to be disconnected from their heritage, their new community, and their own dreams. Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) is the pregnant stay-at-home wife of Homer (Homer Nish), who works occasional blue-collar jobs but mostly hangs out with his loutish friends. The film follows the couple over the course of an evening when Yvonne is dropped off by herself at a double feature while Homer and his slacker pal Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) go off drinking and gambling. Throughout the film, all three of these people provide first-person narrations of where their dreams went wrong and how they are unable to extricate themselves from their current situations.
In concept, “The Exiles” is curious since it is the rare film that presents Indians in a contemporary urban setting, rather than in a fanciful 19th century Western. The film suggests this community continues to self-segregate itself within the big city, as if keeping up a sense of geographic isolation that carried over from the remoteness of the reservations. The old ways of the Indian life holds little appeal here – Homer recalls his family on the reservation during a flashback, but otherwise neither he nor Yvonne and Tommy express any nostalgia for that lifestyle.
But absent of that way of life, the principals of “The Exiles” have nothing to grasp onto. Yvonne appears lost and confused – seemingly without friends or families, she barely maintains her stoicism as she confronts the dreary disappointment of her married life. She gazes at children’s toys and fancy food with rueful smiles, as if she feels it is pre-ordained that such fine objects could not possibly be incorporated into her suffocating world. Homer and Tommy are lazy hedonists, who clearly enjoy doing nothing productive. The film’s central flaw may be the fact these men are not the least bit likeable – it is hard to tolerate, let alone have sympathy, for people who are so aimless and callous, and who appear to be lacking any redeeming features.
Most remarkably, “The Exiles” does not blame whitey for repressing the Indians. If anything, the film condemns this community for failing itself. That’s pretty harsh, but in the scope of the story it appears to be on target.
The restoration work on “The Exiles” was extraordinary. The black-and-white cinematography is crisp and vibrant, and it appears the sound re-recording cleaned up problems that were in place back in 1961 (it is fairly obvious that most of the film was post-synced, given more than a few lapses in lip synchronization).
Anyone interested in American Indian culture and early 1960s indie filmmaking will need to seek out “The Exiles.” Clearly, this is the retro gold discovery of the year.