In the first five minutes of his movie Four Sheets to the Wind, director Sterlin Harjo finds an image David Lynch wishes he'd made: A man puts his dead father in a lake, stands waist-deep in the widening circle of ripples, and lights a cigarette. It's so good you wonder what could possibly follow it, but also in that first few minutes are sad and funny jokes, a parable, and a record player. As the flagship feature of the American Indian Film Festival, Four Sheets is perfect. It's a coming-of-age story, anchored by the sweet and resilient main character Cufe Smallhill, whose fate is to be buffeted by strong, strange forces. Skillfully portrayed by Cody Lightning, Cufe faces love, death, his family, and the eternal questions of self-identification (Who am I? Where am I?) with both style and resignation. Harjo's funky sense of color and effortless way with light allow the actors (our favorite: Tamara Podemski, playing Cufe's fuckup sister Miri) to stay fairly raw, especially when it comes to one of the movie's motifs, silence the director's compositions make hospitable places for contemplation. Ultimately, the film's hipster soundtrack, light touch with heavy issues, and incredibly strong acting and writing fulfill the director's intentions completely: "I wanted to make a film about Indian characters that suffer through the things that all humans do."
On its opening night, AIFF presents two fascinating documentaries about ballet dancing, Maria Tallchief and Water Flowing Together, and, festival-style, a slew of other new work by and about American Indians.
Screenings begin today with a slate of short films at noon at Embarcadero Cinemas, One Embarcadero Center, S.F. Admission is $5. The Festival continues after Nov. 7 at the Palace of Fine Arts.
Nov. 5-10, 2007