NFB Classics: Circle of the Sun
I’m in the middle of transcribing notes from an interview I did last week with Narcisse Blood. Narcisse is a filmmaker and educator living in Southwestern Alberta. He recently directed Round Up, a film we’ll be launching on NFB.ca next week.
For an hour, Narcisse and I chatted about all sorts of things, from his film to the resilience of Blackfoot language and the Great American Bison Massacre of the 19th century.
In order not to scoop myself on my upcoming interview, I will only say Round Up is a relatively hopeful short documentary about Pete Standing Alone, now 82 years-old and a respected Alberta Blood Indian elder. It was produced by Gil Cardinal.
Those familiar with the NFB collection will recognize Pete as the main character in 2 other NFB docs – Circle of the Sun and Standing Alone. I re-watched the former as I prepared for the interview, and I was once again struck by the awesomeness of that film.
Directed by the very great Colin Low in the early 60s, it features a very young (and very dapper) Pete Standing Alone, then an outsider to his own culture – a man vastly more interested in rodeos than in the “spiritual ways” of his ancestors.
In just under half an hour, the film documents both the Circle Dance of the Blood Indians (the first time it was ever captured on film) and the lively cowboy culture of the day, including scenes of cattle-roping, steer-decorating and saddle bronc riding.
Throughout, the photography is stunning. Whether the camera is following young kids playing around, spilling in and out of teepees, wildlife found on reserve, or the highly stylized grass dance, in which dancers young and old are adorned in beads and long white feathers – the eye is constantly mesmerized.
So here it is. If I haven’t made that clear, I think you should watch it. And please keep an eye out for my interview with Narcisse, to be published on this blog next week, for National Aboriginal Day.
Circle of the Sun, Colin Low, provided by the National Film Board of Canada
Years ago, I interviewed Colin Low and we talked about Circle of the Sun. Colin told me he had grown up around people from the Blood Nation and had always been welcomed at the Sun Dance. Still, it took seven years from the time he first floated the idea of filming the Sun Dance until he got permission to go ahead.
Here’s part of what Low said to me: “In those days, white people laughed at the Indian dances. But whenever I got in the middle of the Sun Dance, those drums have a very powerful effect on you. And you can see what they meant culturally. For me there was a very powerful aesthetic in all of that…
“I wanted something that the white communities could feel — that there was an aesthetic and religious validity in that, and in the culture, which often looked terribly poverty stricken. There is a powerful energy in these people, and a toughness.”
In the same conversation, Colin said he felt the film was “just on the edge of being technically adequate,” which tells you something about his standards.
It’s also worth watching Brian Francis’s film The Sacred Sundance, about how this tradition has taken root in New Brunswick.