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Life & Arts

Get Lost With an 'Indian Cowboy' Searching for His Identity – and His Gun

The Austin Film Society is screening “Winter in the Blood” this evening.

The film’s been on the festival circuit for more than a year – and has been picked up for national distribution. Some of the attention it’s gotten is thanks to its star – Chaske Spencer – who fans of the “Twilight” movies know as an ab-bearing werewolf.

In this film, Spencer plays Virgil First Raise – an Indian cowboy who struggles with questions of identity and heritage while on a mission to get his gun back from his runaway wife.

The filmmakers describe “Winter in the Blood” as a neo-noir – mixing dream elements and flashbacks with the modern tale. But much of the focus and coverage of the film has actually not been on the film itself but over issues of race. That’s because “Winter in the Blood” is based on a book by Native American author James Welch and it features a mostly Native American cast. But it was written and directed by white men – including Austin-based filmmaker Alex Smith.

“The main themes, the main story elements are universal – which is a man who has dealt with trauma in a bad way and he’s just hanging on any way he can," Smith says. "He’s been numbing himself to not deal with the trauma, to not deal with the loss and sorrow and ultimately that stopped working and he’s got to come up with a better solution. I think that’s universal, but because it’s about a Native American man who is on a reservation, there’s a lot more depth to his trauma – there’s historical trauma as well as his personal trauma.”

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Credit "Winter in the Blood"
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"People should come in hoping to laugh, cry and get a little bit lost – and then get found – just like the main character," Smith says.

Smith says he and his co-director – and twin brother – Andrew were actually the perfect white guys to tell this story. They grew up in rural Montana where the story takes place. They were family friends with the book’s author. Smith says they also surrounded themselves with people who would help them best “authentically” portray these Native American characters and their experiences. That included bringing probably the most famous Indian filmmaker – Sherman Alexie – on as a producer and leaving some decisions up to their cast.

“There were certain things that we just couldn’t access and we would turn it back to who we cast and say – is this right, how would you say this – and so there’s actually several lines in the film that Chaske wrote as Virgil and, to me, they give me goose bumps because we would never have gotten there," Smith says.

But this portrayal of Native Americans isn’t always flattering – there’s a lot of alcohol abuse, broken relationships and poor decision-making.

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Credit "Winter in the Blood"
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The film mixes elements of fantasy and reality.

“People are saying why are you making a film about another drunk Indian and, for us, my answer to that is why an Indian or why a human being may drink and, beyond that, it’s about why they may stop or what might get them to stop," Smith says. "So it’s actually kind of going right at the stereotype head on. And so, the idea is to get people off of that stereotype.”

And the idea is to tell a story that’s not otherwise being told. Smith says Native Americans are largely ignored in mainstream media.

“So there’s not yet been sort of the Denzel Washington of a native actor as far as I’m aware of," Smith says. "Maybe like a Benjamin Bratt or Adam Beach on some TV shows.  But it’s certainly underrepresented in cinema, big time. And it’s such an American story. It’s such a deeply American – in a way it’s the American story.”

“Winter in the Blood” is showing tonight at the Austin Film Society’s Marchesa Theatre.

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