Directed by Jorge Manzano, Johnny Greyeyes, premiered at among others the 2000 Sundance film festival and the Vancouver ImageNation Aboriginal film festival. Winner of the best director award at the American Indian film festival, Johnny Greyeyes, is a testimony to the struggles of Aboriginal women in Canada and a story of love and survival. Johnny Greyeyes played by Gail Maurice and Lana played by Columpa C. Bobb are two women in love behind bars; two women who, day by day, survive their violent pasts and their violent present in the colonial justice system together. A moving and passionate story about the reality of poverty, violence, prison, and the struggle to survive, live and love. At the same time as tackling a legacy of colonialism, state and class repression the story is about one woman's life. Her journey through an abusive past and her struggle to keep her birth family together while finding a new family inside. These are stories we don't hear in mainstream film, stories that rarely make it out from behind the prison walls. This movie is revolutionary, it's about fighting back, about indigenous struggle, lesbian rights and, the injustices of the prison system and about the will to survive and share the gifts of life and love.
I had an opportunity to speak with Jorge Manzano about the film:
Redwire: Where did you get the story for this movie, what about it made you want to make it into a film?
Jorge: The initial research was done by an Ojibway man, Marcel Commanda, who did interviews with Native inmates across Canada in both federal and provincial penitentiaries. That was the inspiration for this film. Living and growing up in Canada, living in this country Native people are so much a part of it and so I think that in itself is of interest, growing up in this country where the whole Native experience is so controversial. There was a lot of support from the initial drafts of the film on the part of funders. The whole thing that happened at Oka in '94 really politicized the Native experience in Canada for a lot of young people. It brought to the forefront all the things you grow up learning, how 'Anglo-Francophone Canadians see Native people. You saw that rage in Oka, and this was something people lived in their daily lives. The Native experience in Canada, like this film, is a social and political critique but at the same time it shows Native people as people, the trials and tribulations and why they end up in prison. Johnny is not what you think of as in inmate we wanted to show a human side of the prison experience.
Redwire: Was it intimidating to portray the Lesbian romance between Lana and Johnny?
Jorge: When we started working on the film I didn't see it, I didn't realize how important or how conflictual the sexual identity of Johnny would be. Because, it's not justified it's not talked about, it's just who she is as a person in the film. As a dramatic force love lets you understand and feel the relationship allows you to understand what Johnny has to sacrifice in life, the impossibility of her love for Lana who, in the film, is serving a life sentence. And then you see how other people see it; A journalist in Toronto wrote that this film was about quadruple marginalisation. Sure there are people who are on the margins of society, but for me it wasn't about their marginilisation it was about their struggle as human beings who live a life and the things that they have to face. In the film I think it is more difficult for Johnny to leave prison because she has to face her whole life and her past. So I guess it's how people see it, I wanted to have strong characters and show the diversity of people and love is part of that. At Sundance it was written up as the first Native lesbian film. For me it's a film about family and the importance of family; that strength, that link and how family is key to being able to make it, it's a support base. For Johnny that's her struggle.
Redwire: What are your views on the prison justice system?
Jorge: Once you go into prison you don't have a human identity anymore, that's taken away from you. It makes it a lot easier for people to abuse inmates, because they are not human beings, they are paying for what they have done. A lot of Native women are in prison because of violent conflicts resulting in the death of an abusive male, so they are being punished for something that is a social problem. It's not going to change unless you deal with it unless you deal with those things that cause violence in communities and people. Prisons are for the poor they are not for the rich or the middle classes they are there to silence people to be used as a political tool of oppression. Redwire: I understand you are originally from Chile, do you see similarities in the struggle of Indigenous people in Canada and political struggles in Chile?
Jorge: I was born in Chile but grew up in Canada, how I see the world is influenced from my experience as a Chilean and the political experience that comes from that. Latin America in the 60's and 70's was a time of great change and hope, unfortunately followed by dictatorships. Going through intense class struggle has politicized society in a different way. The way people organize in Latin America they don't rely on government funds, so the struggle is a commitment of your life, it's not a job. In Canada it's very different because there is a relationship with the government and funding so in Latin America things are much more grassroots fighting for land and the right to have a First Aid station the basic necessities in life. I've been in protests in Latin America and it is so different, throwing rocks is a show of disobedience but you don't believe you are going to win by throwing rocks. Here I see people trying to be very pacifist when they are getting tear-gass sprayed in their face and people from Latin America and Mexico we're saying these people don't know how to fight. So there is a naiveté here, people aren't used to violent confrontations and there is always a price to pay and sometimes you pay it with your life.
Redwire: There is a definite political nature to this film, it speaks to many of the issues in First Nations communities. Often in the mainstream movies are supposed to be entertainment and that's it. Is it difficult to distribute and find resources for a politically charged film?
Jorge: The film is being released theatrically so it's an independent release. But the thing is it's an independent film, there is no publicity or advertising budget and you are competing against big studios and big distribution companies. So the theatrical release is about getting the film out there and having the critics review it. The main distribution of the film will be through video. It will be released this year by Wolf video in the States. The commercialization of the film has been done through the lesbian and gay community because they have distribution, if the film hadn't touched on this issue it would have been more difficult. I've always been inspired by film as a political means, the theory of film as a revolutionary tool, film can have force in revolutionary struggle as a form of education being critical of society. Hollywood is about escape fantasy and voyeurism, even the poor drive lambourgines...but the thing is that it was sells so for a film like this you don't do it for huge box office sales. A journalist asked me why are you interested in Native issues and I said how can you not be interested I grew up in this country and its part of this country. It is such a controversial issue how this state and this society has dealt with Native people. I don't make this film for myself, I want people to see it at 'Outfest' in Los Angeles the producer of American Beauty said you gotta think about why it is that you're making movies, is it for the glamour of Hollywood because if that is why you are going to have to make films that appeal to that community, that respects the genres and formula of Hollywood movies. For this film it's about getting it shown in alternative circles, a lot of people have seen this movie and I think that's what's important, you can't think about it as about making money. To make another film that's good.
Redwire: What are you working on next?
Jorge: I met a writer out of Vancouver, we are working on a film noire genre film called "The Changing of the Guard." It's about a prison guard who helps an inmate escape. There is a moral to the story about what drives a human being to do things. The question is does money buy happiness?