The late 1990s were a goldmine for independent cinema, with financiers and distributors willing to gamble on diverse material in the wake of “Pulp Fiction’s” breakout success earlier that decade. “Smoke Signals,” marketed by Miramax as “the first feature film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans,” was a critical success and crowd favorite from its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, winning the Filmmaker’s Trophy for director Chris Eyre and the Audience Award there before its theatrical release that summer. Two decades years later, it’s not hard to see why “Smoke Signals” resonated: The movie is filled with humor, heart and genuine affection for its characters, hitting notes of sadness, introspection and well-earned catharsis.
“I get caught up in the emotional process of forgiveness, and I think that’s why the movie resonated and has endured,” Eyre says. “We brought a great sense of magical realism to the story, and it all comes together in the end.”
To salute the film, the Pechanga Resort & Casino in Temecula, Calif., will hold a 20th anniversary cast screening Sept. 26. The National Indian Gaming Assn., Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians and Imagine This are sponsoring.
“ ‘Smoke Signals’ is an important movie for Indian Country, and to see these beautifully nuanced Native American characters on the big screen was a revelation for us,” says Victor Rocha, conference chair of the National Indian Gaming Assn. “Not only could we be the stewards of our own stories, but it proved we could make great movies.”
Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, adapted his short story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” into the screenplay, focusing on Native American culture, while also crafting an inclusive, entertaining and dramatically potent piece of storytelling. “In the mid-’90s, our life’s mission was to make features, and over four years we got the film accomplished,” recalls Eyre, who credits the Sundance Institute as being crucial to the film’s success. “Sundance cultivates voices and the film was born out of their labs. It wouldn’t have been possible without their support.”
Alexie has recently has been at the center of sexual misconduct charges, and is not expected to attend the event.
The movie’s road-trip narrative centers on two long-time best friends, portrayed by actors Adam Beach and Evan Adams, who are very different as human beings and yet share some deep-rooted similarities. An event in their past jumpstarts a journey of personal discovery, allowing them to step outside their comfort zones in an effort to learn more about themselves.
“ ‘Smoke Signals’ was an outlet for me to deal with my own parents’ deaths from when I was a child,” says Beach, who plays the character Victor to Adams’ Thomas. “During that traumatic end-scene, I wasn’t really acting. Chris had to snap me out of that moment because it was so intensely personal, and as an actor, it broke down that barrier in terms of giving a truthful screen performance.”
The strong supporting cast helped to define the entire film. “I’m so proud of all of the performances, and I have so many wonderful memories from the production,” says Adams, who adds that they “aimed to show true authenticity about life on the reservation.”
Irene Bedrad, who plays a key role as a friend of Victor’s father, says when she initially read the script, she would have “walked to Los Angeles to get the part.” Tantoo Cardinal and Elaine Miles peppered the film with spirited character work, and Cardinal says “seeing the film again on the big screen should be fun and I can’t wait for people to experience the love we brought to the project.” While Miles says, “the universal nature of the story allows everyone to relate to it one way or another. It’s a special film.”
But what’s dispiriting to note is that there wasn’t a big boom of Native-American filmmakers who got their chance to tell their stories after “Smoke Signals” helped to pave the way. “The follow-up was very shallow in Hollywood,” laments Eyre, who adds that “audiences deserve the Native American ‘Black Panther.’”
But as time marches forward, the film continues to find champions. Martin Scorsese recently added “Smoke Signals” to his Film Foundation course curriculum, and a boutique home entertainment label like would be wise in snagging “Smoke Signals” for its library, as it’s yet to receive the “special edition” treatment. “That would be wonderful,” says Eyre. “The film deserves to live long into the future.”