Interview with Albert Kahn, Director
Diversity is one of the most talked about issues in the entertainment industry. Your piece features many aspects of Native American culture, which is one of the least represented cultures in modern day cinema. What was your main inspiration behind this piece? How much research did you do when creating the story?
My inspiration for creating this eponymous short film came partially from reading the book Mannahatta, by Eric Sanderson, which traces the environmental evolution of Manhattan island from the arrival of Henry Hudson, in 1609, to today. Sanderson chronicles the fascinating transformation of a lush landscape of forests and streams, hills and dales, and beaches and estuaries, into one of the world's largest and densest cities. He also pays special attention to the Native American population that inhabited the island before Hudson's arrival and continued to coexist with the colonists for several decades. Sanderson's explorations meshed with another idea that I've had in the past, which is wondering what a Native American from centuries ago would think of what we've built in his former home. So, what would a Native American person from the land of Mannahatta think of what we have created on top of his home island? What would he make of this monstrous metropolis, so beautiful in its own way, yet so far removed from its natural roots? This film sought to answer this question, and then some.
I was not necessarily trying to specifically offer redress to the underrepresentation of Native cultures in cinema, although that may be a positive fringe benefit of the film. You could say, though, that I was trying to raise the historical consciousness (or conscience, for that matter) of the film's viewers so that they could better remember that history obviously did not start with European colonization; rather, in what would become the most heavily-developed area of the entire country there once was a rolling land of breathtaking verdure, peopled with worthy inhabitants. Thus Mannahatta, or the “island of many hills,” may have been far more beautiful than modern-day Manhattan became, depending on one's point of view. But hopefully the film will also show that there are a few small areas that remain the same (like the rocky caves depicted in the film which still exist today in Inwood Hill park in northern Manhattan), like forgotten vestiges of an era long since past.
I conducted quite a bit of research, both from Sanderson's book as well as other secondary and primary sources, in order to create as accurate of a portrayal of this particular tribe of Native Americans as possible. The character of Still Waters is a member of the Wappinger tribe, and is part of the Wecquaesgeek subgroup within that tribe. This band specifically lived on the island of Mannahatta in the seventeenth century when the Dutch colonial town of New Amsterdam (later to be re-christened “New York”) at the southern tip of the island was growing and expanding northward. Intermittent violent skirmishes between the natives and the Europeans marred periods of relative peace. The ultimate death knell of the cooperative possibilities amongst the two groups was a bloody conflict called “Kieft's War,” which is referenced and distantly depicted in the film.
Further, a significant amount of research was done in terms of what Still Waters' apparel should be, given the season (fall), the time period (1640s), and his particular sub-tribe (Weckqausegeek). Consulting contemporaneous primary-source sketches made by visiting Europeans, I was able to identify the correct outfit in which to dress our actor, Bernardo.
In terms of the scenes in modern-day Manhattan, there are certainly inaccuracies that we were aware of, such as a Wappinger tribesman readily recognizing and understanding the totem poles in the museum, which were most definitely carved by faraway tribes (in this case, ones from the Pacific Northwest) with whom Still Waters never would've been able to have contact. But our professional judgment led us to prioritize the emotional impact and overall arc of the storyline over rote accuracy.
This short is entirely non-verbal. One of the most striking images of the short was Still Waters running through present day Manhattan while all of the people around him are seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. What kind of conversations are you hoping to start with this piece?
Well, first of all, I thought that some of Still Waters' interactions (or non-interactions) with present- day bystanders were humorous. As you can imagine, none of the “extras” in the film were aware that we were even shooting a film; and in many cases we were using a very long lens, so the camera was nowhere in sight, thus further reinforcing the perceived “authenticity” of Still Waters. Thus, you get the effect of people noticing him (and maybe even doing a little double-take) and then attempting to return to their stoic-New Yorker-stonefaces. Or, amazingly, some people don't notice at all that there is a Native American man dressed in period costume from centuries ago running through the streets (or they pretend not to notice to keep up that “seen-it-all” attitude). Either way, you get a small chuckle here and there in an otherwise serious piece. But I do suppose that there could be some analysis of what their reactions really do mean in terms of the actual contemporary legacy of Native Americans in this country and how they are often “ignored.” Or maybe some commentary on our overall jadedness as a society, tied into our phone obsession. But neither of these were my intent.
But I think what I was aiming for was to at least highlight the connectedness that we should feel with the past (after all, it is the same ground in which Still Waters buries his hatchet in 1643 that he extracts it from in 2018) and with our predecessors on this land, the Native Americans. I suppose that we could use this as a jumping-off point to rail against the Eurocentric viewpoints that are reinforced through numerous channels in our society, but that is definitely not my bailiwick. My goal in making this film and pondering these contentious issues is never to undermine the ultimate legitimacy of the United States, but rather to provide some kind of historical context (with the time-travel conceit providing a contemporary twist) that can allow us to perhaps reconsider decisions that are being made today that are perpetuating the cycle of persecution that Native peoples have endured from the very beginning. The subject matter is both ancient history and an urgent emergency. If one person who watches this film gets engaged with helping Native American causes in the here and now, this film was a success.
This piece plays with time travel- a uniquely science-fiction theme- yet this piece feels rooted in reality. Do you frequently try and combine elements from different genres in your work?
I must say, this is the first film I've done that features time travel as an actual plot device. As I'm sure most if not all filmmakers have, I have liberally employed the use of flashbacks, as well as other narrative tricks throughout my career to create what hopefully becomes a meaningful story. But this science fiction element is new for me. Of course, sci-fi is one of my favorite genres as a viewer, so I suppose that it was only natural that I would eventually incorporate it into my work in some capacity. In Mannahatta, I provide no explanation for the “magic” that is involved in the rocky cave that transports Still Waters forward (and eventually back) in time; hopefully viewers will get on board with this special break from reality. That said, I'm glad you think the piece is “rooted in reality.” That's definitely a good thing. Maybe it's because both the past and the present are unadulterated versions of themselves, with the only “magic” being the time travel itself. So 2018 and 1643 are as real as it gets.
Generally speaking, I think that combining genres and approaches to filmmaking can be very fruitful. I've made narrative music videos with stories that generally would not be associated with the style of music that is being played. Sometimes contrarian choices that are made just for the sake of being contrarian can backfire, but if they're done for the right reasons, they can work beautifully. Plus, in a world where there is a true glut of material out there competing for limited airspace, combining genres or doing something completely unexpected can also lead to the type of originality that can cause an artist to break out from the pack.