Chloé Zhao new film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, is a universal story told through the specificity of its two main characters, siblings Johnny (John Reddy) and Jashaun Winters (Jashaun St. John), and how they deal with daily life living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after their estranged father’s alcohol-related death. Zhao has an impulse to create universality, meshed with the determination to create fleshed out and realistic portrayals of minority characters, setting her film apart – with a brave idea to cast non-actor members of the reservation to play the complex characters. Chloé and Jashaun sat down with us to discuss the biography of the film, the pursuit of diversity, and the happiness of an open field.
NeueJournal: Where did the idea to tell the story of this particular reservation come from?
Chloé Zhao: I’ve always lived in big cities and I wanted to go to a place where nature is still wild. The idea of home is a theme that I explore a lot in my work, and upon reading more about the reservation I found they are so extremely identified with the place and such a complex relationship with it, which is the opposite of my experience. I don’t identify with a single place that I feel I could call home. Pine Ridge is the ground zero of all the struggles that Native Americans go through – historically and today.
NJ: Jashaun this is your first acting role, which is hard to believe since you were spectacular. Was acting something you had thought about doing before meeting Chloé?
Jashaun St. John: Yeah, when I was younger I used to make-believe stuff, and acting was always fun for me. So when Chloé told me about this opportunity, I was excited.
NJ: It’s interesting you say that because your character has such creativity. Chloé, you were inspired by the stories of the reservation inhabitants, but how much of it is biographical?
CZ: Jashaun draws, but she’s more of a cheerleader and she plays basketball. The film’s Jashaun was an artist. Johnny, on the other hand, said that 80% of his character is who he is. Jashaun is maybe 40%. She doesn’t have a lot of brothers and sisters like Johnny did, and she’s the oldest, but after meeting with her we talked about the role and she said she always wanted an older brother. Johnny and Jashaun only met once before acting together, but right away there was a connection. I knew it was going to work from day one, because when I looked over she was throwing these black olives to the roof of the trailer and he was catching them with his mouth.
Film still from Songs My Brothers Taught Me
NJ: What was the biggest challenge with your first acting role and what was your favorite part about it?
JSJ: I think the most challenging thing was all the emotional scenes. I usually don’t cry that much. My favorite part has been traveling and meeting new people.
NJ: The theme of inclusion and diversity in the film industry is more prevalent now than ever before. Is this is something you actively think about when creating projects?
CZ: I think so. It’s not even a matter of who is more righteous, it’s just a matter of curiosity. I’m not saying white stories are not good and important, but there’s quite a lot being done already. I’d like to see places I don’t know about, and images I haven’t seen as much in our mainstream media. Plenty of the portrayal of Native Americans is either as historical figures or just very two-dimensional, and we all know – if we really take a minute to think about it – it’s not reality.
I was an American Politics major in school and my focus was racial relations, so I think it’s in my nature to seek representations that are lacking, and try to put them on screen. Like these kids, their Native American identity isn’t their only identity. They’re a mother or a daughter, a rapper… a cowboy. That’s who they are, and to represent them that way – as a human being first – and to show what’s similar before just saying what’s different, that’s the kind of thing I’m interested in. Not just Native Americans…for Asians, and for any representation.
NJ: In what way would you say your upbringings have influenced you the most?
JSJ: Because there isn’t much to do, you’re more free…
CZ: Remember going to your grandma’s house and going in the backyard? The sun was setting and you could really hear everything. You could hear the animals. I thought as a kid, you can’t really get away. It’s hard in the city to really find those moments.
NJ: Did you grow up riding horses or having a relationship with animals?
JSJ: No, I wasn’t really familiar on how to ride a horse until the movie came out.
CZ: Johnny was definitely more the physical. She grew up in the city of the reservation and John grew up in the boonies, as he would say. He grew up with horses in front of his house. Jashaun was more in town. But she’s been a pow wow dancer since how old?
NJ: That’s amazing!
CZ: Yeah, and her dad is a sun dancer. Jashaun was a trader when she was young, but John didn’t really have this aspect. She was more attuned with the ceremonial culture, whereas John is more in touch with the western side. Like the horses, rodeo, that kind of world. His dad is quite well known in the rodeos as a bareback rider. He actually has 25 kids. John has the Wild West in him.
Film still from Songs My Brothers Taught Me
NJ: This film is particularly important because, as you were saying, there is no real human representation of this type of character in the canon of cinema. What three films have had the biggest influence on you?
CZ: Tree of Life or Days of Heaven…I haven’t decided which one. Terrence Malick really gave me a lot of courage that films could be made while trying to discover what’s invisible. Another is Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together, which is a big reason why I made this movie. And Harmony Korine’s films too.
NJ: Malick studied philosophy, so I think having an alternative background, like you and your political background, makes you have a different approach to creating.
CZ: If you believe there is something bigger in the universe that connects us all, that’s worth exploring. Finding something universal is not necessarily about what’s right in front of us, and Malick talks about that connection all the time. If you believe you’re a part of something bigger when you make art, even if it’s about a particular subject, you try to find something universal within that community or that culture or that individual.
For example, one of my friends told me the film reminded him of growing up in a small village in the south of France, and having to figure out how to leave the only place he’s ever known. That, to me, is the best way for us to bridge differences…showing issues that can be identified with at large, and then laying in the political, specific stuff about Native Americans.
NJ: Who do you consider your biggest hero?
JSJ: My grandparents. My mom had me at a very young age; I was born after she graduated high school and she wanted to go to college. So I grew up living in my grandparents house while my mom was away at college.
NJ: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
CZ: Mine would probably be having a horse ranch with like fifty dogs, or having an animal sanctuary of any kind – surrounded by lots of dogs. I’d pick up some cats too, but, you know, they can take care of themselves. But dogs and good food and making movies!
JSJ: I’m very active, so I like the summer more than I like anything else. Where my other grandma lives they don’t have a lot of buildings around. Living around open fields is what I enjoy the most.
Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal