Between 1969 and 1971, Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island to protest the federal government's breach of its treaties with Indian nations. It's where John Trudell, like many politically active Native Americans, found their voice.
Trudell went on to become a radical promoter of Indian rights, and one of the founders of AIM, the American Indian Movement. After his young wife and child were killed in a suspicious fire, he began to write poetry and soon after that he had the idea of setting his poetry to traditional Native American music. Honoring his Lakota roots, Trudell integrated the Native American struggle for decency and recognition into an archetypal quest for personal identity and freedom. In Trudell, director Heather Rae and writer Russell Friedenberg do an excellent job of articulating Trudell's philosophy, but their scope is too broad and unfocused. Like many "documentaries" that are essentially homages, Trudell often lacks context.
Rae has been conducting research and interviewing Trudell for over ten years, gathering archival Super-8 and 16 mm stock of the 1970s protests and of Trudell's concerts. She's also conducted interviews with musicians, actors and fellow activists, Robert Redford and Kris Kristofferson among them. It's an impressive accomplishment, and a wonderful tribute to Trudell. At 80 minutes, the documentary shouldn't tax audiences, but it will: The activist turns 60 this year, and Trudell attempts to depict over three decades of his life as a protest leader, a poet, a musician and an actor. (Trudell appeared in Thunderheart and several other feature films.) There's dreamy black-and-white interview footage of Trudell expounding on his insight that all Americans have become Indians-we're swallowing the Establishment version of the truth and dishonoring ourselves and the Earth. In less effective color footage, he spews '60s-era platitudes, and looks like a tired hippie. Then there are brief clips of Trudell in the 1970s singing protest songs, and of course the celebrity interviews.
Too often Rae simply loses control and Trudell takes over: Mostly, these sequences look like music-videos, but there is one repetitive image of Trudell on reservation land, speaking about his longstanding vision of himself in the past, that looks as though it's been wrested from another film entirely. The jarring shifts from panegyric to performance film are also highlighted by short clips and frequent cutting: It's as though the filmmakers felt the documentary slipping from their control and edited it to within an inch of its life. Like a flip book, Trudell's brief shots and sequences-along with the activist's songs and poems-fade into the blur of rapid motion.
Angelina Jolie financed the production of Trudell's latest CD, Bone Days, and she is one of the documentary's executive producers. She discovered Trudell through her mother, who claims roots in the Haudenosaunee, a Mohawk tribe. While it's encouraging to know that Trudell speaks to yet another generation-Jolie will turn 31 this year-and that he's obviously still wedded to his leftist views, it is uncomfortable to see him turned into "TrudelltheMovie.com." Because Trudell, the man, represents the possibility of life outside the Establishment, Trudell, the movie, poses one of the important questions of our age: Can any revolutionary artist survive the onslaught of celebrity? Unfortunately, Heather Rae never asks that question.