Songs My Brothers Taught Me features a cast of Oglala Lakota people from the Pine Ridge Reservation in a moving story about life on the reservation. It is chiefly about the lives of Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and his younger sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John).
Themes of traditional life, abandonment, alcoholism, coming of age, imprisonment, family, love, community, suicide, and dreams intertwine in this quiet story.
Most of the actors are Lakota. Those who are not are North American natives of other tribes. One professional actor whose face you may recognize is Irene Bedard. She plays one of the nine women who gave birth to 25 children fathered by Carl Winters. The half brothers and sisters scattered around the reservation all know each other and are brought together when their father dies in a house fire. They all look out for each other.
Johnny earns money for his family by selling alcohol – illegal on the reservation. He is about to graduate from high school and wants to follow his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) to LA as she begins college.
Taysha Fuller is another professional actor. (@tayshafuller) She describes herself thusly: “Taysha Fuller was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada and grew up on Six Nations Reservation. Taysha’s mother is Cayuga Nation Wolf Clan, and her father is Mohawk Nation, Turtle Clan.” Here’s wishing this talented young woman a successful career. We certainly need more faces like Irene Bedard and Taysha Fuller on our screens.
The story behind this indie production written, directed, and edited by Chloé Zhao is interesting. Zhao, a Chinese-American, had a scripted story called “Lee” written to film at Pine Ridge when the funding fell through. She gathered her equipment and people and made a largely improvised film featuring reservation inhabitants playing characters very like their real selves.
In Navigating Fact and Fiction: Chloé Zhao on Songs My Brothers Taught Me, there is an interview with the filmmaker. She commented,
Even before funding fell through, I was feeling trapped by the script. Once we had nothing—no money, no pressure, almost no crew—we had to go with truth in front of the camera. Because truth was all we could afford. My job was to capture authentic moments Pine Ridge and my cast were giving me and try to navigate a story around it.
Zhao did manage to craft a story around the almost 100 hours of film she shot. It’s a quiet, respectful look at reservation life in the badlands of South Dakota. Don’t expect action movie excitement from this film. But if you are interested in real life lived by real people, you will find it worth watching.