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No reservations: Director comfortable with revealing nature of 'Skins'

Tired of romanticized stereotypes, director Chris Eyre wanted to open audiences' eyes to a truer depiction of life on American Indian reservations. He took a peek in 1998's "Smoke Signals," but four years later trained an unflinching eye on the h...

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Tired of romanticized stereotypes, director Chris Eyre wanted to open audiences' eyes to a truer depiction of life on American Indian reservations.

He took a peek in 1998's "Smoke Signals," but four years later trained an unflinching eye on the harsh reality of the rez in "Skins."

The director, who lives in Rapid City, S.D., with his wife and daughter, brings "Skins" to the Fargo Theatre tonight. Eyre is in town visiting the tri-college campuses talking about his films.

The 33-year-old has been known to talk himself hoarse discussing his films. He hasn't felt the need to toot his own horn (critics do that for him), but rather respond to concerns and complaints.

In an effort to create the most realistic image of the rez, Eyre refuses to sugarcoat.

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"Skins" presents the story of two brothers on the Pine Ridge Reservation, located in South Dakota and Nebraska. One is a good cop exacting vigilante justice; the other a charming Vietnam vet who can't stay sober to save his life.

His unflinching views have drawn complaints from whites and American Indians who felt Pine Ridge was painted in an unflattering light focusing too much on alcoholism and domestic problems.

"I've had people say, 'Why did you show that?' I just say, 'You're missing the point,' " Eyre says.

For the director, the point is showing the American Indian's love of ceremony, history and tradition.

Graham Greene portrays the hopelessly drunk Mogie Yellow Lodge. In one scene, the character greets a pig on a spit with the sweat lodge salutation, "All my relations," before pouring beer over it.

"I think it's important to hear a voice for contemporary issues," says Jaclyn Davis Wallette, president of Northern Plains Voices. The group promotes American Indian cultures in the area through visiting artists and lecturers.

Raised on the Turtle Mountain reservation near Belcourt, N.D., Wallette hasn't seen "Skins," but is "intrigued" by the story.

"It's so important to get the message out about what people are dealing with," she says.

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Adopted as an infant by white parents in Klamath Falls, Ore., Eyre is not an outside observer of life on the rez.

"I was a product of the rez, of the hardships," he says.

Eyre's adoptive parents always told him he was Cheyenne-Arapaho. As an adult he found his birth mother, researched his heritage and enrolled in the Cheyenne Nation.

The director was so dedicated to reality that he insisted "Skins" be shot on Pine Ridge. With 86 percent unemployment and 63 percent of the people living below the poverty line, the rez couldn't even offer lodging for the cast and crew.

"We ended up staying in Chadron, Neb. Which was an hour drive to the site," Eyre says. "When you add the two hours of driving onto a 14-hour shoot and an hour to wrap, that's a long day."

After the film was released, Eyre commandeered a mobile theater to bring "Skins" to Pine Ridge and other reservations on The Rolling Rez Tour.

The air-conditioned, enclosed semi-trailer is equipped with a 35 millimeter projector and screen, stadium seating for 90 and a popcorn machine.

"It was as close as I'll get to being a rock star," Eyre says. "We would drive all night and pull into a parking lot and play during the day.

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"We just knew we had to bring the movie to Pine Ridge, and there are no theaters there, so this was how we had to do it."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

If you go

- What: Screening of "Skins" with introduction and discussion by director Chris Eyre.

- When: 7 p.m. today

- Where: Fargo Theatre

- Info: (701) 235-4152

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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