'Exiles' Lost And Found At the 1961 Venice International Film Festival, critics raved about The Exiles, a film about young Native Americans hanging out in a seedy Los Angeles neighborhood that starred nonprofessional local actors. But after its film-festival debut, The Exiles disappeared. A new restoration and distribution reintroduces the lost docudrama.
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'Exiles' Lost And Found

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'Exiles' Lost And Found

'Exiles' Lost And Found

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

"The Exiles" is a movie from the 1950s about young people finding their way in the big city, luminous black and white shots of neon lights, big cars and lonely brooders. But the thing that really sets this movie apart - those young people finding their way in the city are Native Americans. 50 years after filming began on "The Exiles," this lost film is having its first theatrical release.

Susan Stone reports.

SUSAN STONE: From four in the afternoon to four in the morning, "The Exiles" follows a group of men and women as they fight, dance, play cards and just hang out.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Exiles")

(Soundbite of laughter)

STONE: The film cuts between jobless, hard-partying Homer and his friends as they wander the city, and his pregnant wife Yvonne who leads a lonelier, quieter existence.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Exiles")

Ms. YVONNE WILLIAMS (As herself): I don't see much of him. When he's home I feel all right and I'm hoping and wishing all the time that he will straighten out. If I hadn't met him I probably would've been all right now. Maybe I would've had what I wanted.

STONE: In the 1950s, many Native Americans were encouraged to move from reservations to cities. Director Kent McKenzie was just out of film school when he met a group of young Indians hanging out in downtown L.A. and he decided to make a film about them.

He started shooting with a shoestring budget, leftover film stock and a borrowed cameras so noisy that all sound and dialogue had to be added later. Erik Daarstad was a cinematographer on "The Exiles."

Mr. ERIK DAARSTAD (Cinematographer): Kent had to keep raising money to continue production as we went along. We stopped when we ran out of money and then we got a little more money and then we continued. The amazing thing was that this group of Indians, they really hung in there the whole time for us.

STONE: The members of the cast weren't just cooperating, they were collaborating, working out dialogue with McKenzie and helping to guide the story. Even so, the filmmakers viewed their project as a documentary. The action takes place in a single evening, but it took two years to shoot. During that time, two of the cameramen did stints in the Army and Yvonne, who was pregnant in the film, had three children. It's not cinéma vérité, says Amy Heller.

Ms. AMY HELLER (Owner, Milestone Films): It's definitely on the cusp between documentary and feature films.

STONE: Amy Heller's company, Milestone Films, had "The Exiles" restored and is behind its re-release.

Ms. HELLER: Its virtues are its authenticity and its kind of human size and its beauty, its visual beauty, which is just luminous. It glows, it glows. All the movie theatres with all the lights, all the marquees glowing, the big cars going by and, you know, shining and even the gas station is beautiful.

STONE: In one scene the group makes their way to Vacant Hill X at the end of the night. They meet overlooking the lights of the city from far above.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Exiles")

Unidentified Man #1: The bars close at two o'clock in the morning. You know, most all the Indians meet after two, too. And then Indians like to get together where they won't be bothered, you know, watched or nothing like that. And we turn loose.

(Soundbite of singing)

STONE: They drink, fight, sing and dance. When the sun comes up, they head off home to get some rest before starting all over again. The characters are in a sort of limbo - so is the film. Beginning with its debut in 1961, "The Exiles" played several foreign film festivals but there wasn't much interest at home. It was even called a dismal picture of Indian life in the U.S. in a government memo.

The cast and crew went their separate ways. Kent McKenzie went on to do short films and television and only one more feature film before he died in 1980. "The Exiles" emerged again after it was highlighted in the 2003 documentary "Los Angeles Plays Itself." A few screenings were arranged; an audience was waiting.

Mr. BEN ALEX DUPREE(ph) (Artist): It was the most amazing Native American film that I'd ever seen.

STONE: Ben Alex Dupree, a contemporary Native artist, saw "The Exiles" in 2005, and since then he's been telling everyone he knows about it. He says the film gave him something that had always been missing from his life.

Mr. DUPREE: A lot of the imagery and the media that was done for Native people was just a lot of headdress photos and stoic pictures. And you really didn't get a sense as a young Native person growing up that your relatives a few generations back were like you. And so it alienated us from our own elders because we didn't think that they went through the same experiences that we were going through.

STONE: It wasn't just the realistic vision of people dealing with drinking, romance and ennui that he found so compelling. Dupree says he'd never seen those kinds of cool, sexy, real Native Americans in movies. Fifty years later, "The Exiles" have found their place on screen. The film opened Friday in New York and moves on from there.

For NPR News, I'm Susan Stone.

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