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With: (voices) Bill Pullman, Sheila Tousey
Written by: Anne Makepeace
Directed by: Anne Makepeace
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 85
Date: 18/03/2013

Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Indian Giver

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Edward S. Curtis was a photographer who built his own camera when he was a lad. He quickly gained recognition and prestige and became interested in photographing American Indians. The new documentary Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians tells his story fully and from all sides.

As the film begins, Curtis is presented as a near-Saint, a man who preserved the traditions and culture of a generation of American Indians on film. As it progresses, we see him as an obsessive workaholic, leaving his life and family behind to complete his proposed project; a twenty-volume set of photographs of North American Indians. (He was under the impression that their heritage and culture would be completely wiped out in a matter of years.)

Directed by Anne Makepeace, the film is smart enough to show Curtis' detractors as well. One American Indian man claims the photos should never have been taken, that he should confiscate them. Others claim that many of Curtis' photos were staged or posed. And finally, Curtis' own wife becomes an enemy, driven to hatred from years of neglect.

The film also makes the discovery that a ritual dance, called the Snake Dance, filmed by Curtis, was a fraud. The dancers performed it backwards on purpose so as not to cheapen the real thing in front of the cameras. On the other hand, a Sun Dance festival was re-enacted by one tribe in the 1970s using Curtis' photos as a guide.

Coming to Light makes good use of Curtis' beautiful sepia-toned photographs. Though he reportedly took anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 photos, the movie shows a wide cross section. It also uses clips of Curtis' silent films and some of his sound recordings. Most effectively, it uses his own written words (voiced by Bill Pullman). My only complaint is that it resorts to modern day re-enactments of past events, which detract from the film's mood.

Altogether, Coming to Light is an accomplished documentary that completes the cycle of rediscovery surrounding Curtis' work. It plays at the Roxie, December 15 through 22.

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