The Embodied Landscapes of Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me (USA, 2015) and The Rider (USA, 2017)
‘There simply are not enough films made about this place and these people.’ – Chloé Zhao
A people and a place
In filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s statement above, ‘this place’ refers to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the state of South Dakota and ‘these people’ are specifically the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe who live in the reservation. Exploring the intricate connection between bodies, subjectivities, and landscapes, Zhao’s two feature-length films are about and acted by members of this Lakota community who were born, live, work, and thus have complex roots and ties with the territory that constitutes Pine Ridge. Though different in tone, character, and scope, Zhao’s two films Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and The Rider (2017) in many ways constitute a significant diptych precisely for its austere representations of contemporary Native American lives, experiences, and spaces; collaborative approach to these representations between Zhao and non-professional actors; and the blending of actual, staged, and reenacted moments in accessing individual and collective voices of this community.
The fact that Zhao—a Beijing-born filmmaker whose education from secondary school to graduate studies propelled her from the U.K. to the U.S.—is the writer-director-producer of these films may at first glance strike one as incongruous, given her contrary nomadic trajectory compared to her cast and characters. But if in rootlessness one comes to (better) understand cultural differences and the burden as well as joy of roots, then this same issue of incongruity becomes irrelevant. The logic of contrast is arguably the foundation for the emotional force of Songs and Rider, at the level of theme and shooting methods. For in discovering Pine Ridge and its firmly knit community, Zhao and her big-city background was above all compelled to know the stories, relationships, and desires of these people, about/from whom one hears and sees so little in mainstream media apart from history books (as if they ceased to exist outside of them and/or became fossilised into stereotypes). The logic of contrast operates narratively within each film as well as between the two films. While Songs presents a cross-section of experiences and perspectives of Lakota youth in Pine Ridge and employs a coming-of-age template in order to register this cross-section, Rider has a narrower focus on a young man and is more of a coming-to-terms narrative than a coming-of-age one. Put another way, Songs emphasizes the social that is only hinted at in Rider, while the latter probes the psychological and existential that is registered largely externally in the former, apart from voiceovers at the beginning and end of the film. To a great extent, the films’ differing tone stems from their main actors, who essentially play themselves while navigating between documentary and fiction elements.
A logic of contrast and variation
Songs’ focus on Lakota youth is anchored through the life of highschooler Johnny (John Reddy), sensitive but also quite temperamental. On the verge of finishing high school, he plans on leaving Pine Ridge with his girlfriend Aurelia (Taysha Fuller) for Los Angeles to forge a life of their own while the latter attends university there. Instead of the film becoming a road movie following the young couple, however, it staunchly remains in Pine Ridge and charts Johnny’s conflict of leaving his roots or staying put for the sake of his younger sister Jashaun (Jashaun St. John) and community ties, despite or because of their not-so-reliable mother Lisa (Irene Bedard). Johnny’s conflict then manifests itself more externally when Jashaun distances herself from him out of resentment and to anticipate his impending absence. Meanwhile, Johnny works as a bootlegger in order to earn money for his impending trip, despite knowing the incredible damage that alcoholism has wreaked on his community, young and old, including his mother. Through Johnny’s varied activities—he is more often on the move and hustling than standing still—the film physically expresses not only his conflict of staying or leaving but also the social conditions in Pine Ridge that push him to leave and the affective bonds that encourage him to remain. Though veering at times towards the formulaic (tropes of the young couple, the troubled parent with whom one is at odds, an older woman as a potential object/subject of seduction), the film builds nicely upon the contrast between Johnny’s constant movement and the static lives of others on the one hand and community activities and moments of isolated quiet on the other.
Rider’s more internal movement is very much guided by two factors: the taciturn Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a rodeo rider, whose developing career in the sport is cut short following a serious injury. The film spans Brady’s physical healing, from having a shaved head as a result of his surgery to being able to walk around and actually be in the presence of horses. Though supremely lucky to have come out of his rodeo accident not only alive but also mobile, his injury has long-term effects in the form of hand seizures, which will worsen if he decides to continue with rodeo once his head has fully healed. Though the film also devotes substantial attention to the socio-spatial and -emotional textures of Brady’s post-accident life through his sister Lilly (Lilly Jandreau), father Wayne (Tim Jandreau), and group of friends, it concentrates on a tug-of-war structure of Brady pushing himself physically to match with his internal desires—breaking horses, riding, even practicing on a mechanical bull—and having to recoil from such activities, often triggered by a seizure. Again and again, one is witness to this physico-psychological push and recoil with Brady. While Brady’s situation certainly invites a manic depiction, which in turn provides opportunities for dramatic scenes, the film forgoes such predictability. Far from becoming redundant, the camera’s witnessing of Brady’s push-recoil incrementally lays bare in the most quiet of ways the traumatic, existential dilemma with which he is confronted due to his accident: to no longer be able to do the thing that he loves, the very thing that makes him feel like himself and connected to the environment and community in which he has lived, in his body and soul.
In truth, this logic of contrast across Zhao’s two films ultimately evolves into a logic of variation, leading to a broader portrait of lives on Pine Ridge in general and on questions of masculine behaviour and relationships specifically, so that Songs and Rider socially and emotionally complement each other. Though Johnny in Songs is rather capricious and Brady in Rider is deeply contemplative in the face of their respective situations, they are nevertheless historically representative of some of the traditional paths taken by—or limited options afforded to, depending on one’s point of view—Lakota (male) youth in Pine Ridge: to leave the reservation, engage in boxing, and/or be a rodeo rider. The situations of these two young men and how they re/act in response also point to the fractured male relationships that are present in Pine Ridge. Uncannily or not, both Songs and Rider revolve around three-member families: parent, son, and daughter. Though Brady’s father is the present parent, he is more absent than involved in his life even though they live under the same roof. Johnny’s own father dies early in the film, but subsequent conversations between Johnny and his numerous half-siblings state plainly that he was mainly an absentee one. Consequently, a major emotional and ethical factor in their lives is caring for their respective younger sisters, especially for Brady because Lilly is autistic. In notable contrast, Johnny and Brady have a big brother figure in their lives but cannot fully interact with them due to circumstances: Johnny’s older brother Cody (Justin Reddy) is in prison and prefers to be there than to live at home, and Brady’s best friend and proclaimed ‘big brother’ Lane (Lane Scott) is paralysed due to an automobile accident and can communicate only with his left hand.
Following through with the idea of variation and the quality of touch wedded to communication, the most astonishing aspect of Zhao’s films, especially Rider, is its confident pursuit and audiovisual detailing of experiences, specifically through the tactile.
When discussing her films, Zhao has constantly mentioned the idea of authenticity, that which is true to the lives, spaces, and experiences of the people with whom she worked in her two films. Though she has half-jested that authenticity was the only thing that her budget for Songs could afford, the thread of authenticity is perhaps the most explicit detail that links Songs and Rider and their themes and method. Zhao cast members of the Lakota community for her films and they were all non-professional actors. Johnny essentially performs in the film with his father (who plays his uncle) and many half-brothers, and Brady’s family in the film is played by his actual father and sister. Though Zhao followed a treatment during the shooting of Songs, she constantly re-wrote scenes and dialogue in order to merge her filmmaking and writing with her cast’s actual past and present experiences, situations, and/or feelings. She followed this same approach of collaboration with her cast for Rider. At the same time, Zhao wove together elements of the actual, the staged, and the reenacted to access truths—not what Werner Herzog calls the ‘truth of accountants’ in his 1999 ‘Minnesota declaration’ but rather ‘deeper strata of truth in cinema,’ that is, ‘poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.’ More than anything, the recurring tactile quality found intermittently in Songs and throughout Rider is what enables these two films to access truths born from facts and fabrication, in Pine Ridge and its inhabitants.
Though irregularly found in Songs, the element of touch marks important moments for the main characters. Significantly, the first scenes in Songs introduce Johnny and his link with his little sister Jashaun through hands. As the camera follows Johnny from behind, a blue-painted handprint can be seen on his back. The source of this initially ambiguous mark is later revealed to be Jashaun, who is making handprints with blue paint to decorate part of her room. It is a subtle connection but a profound one, as the brother-sister bond is the most critical relationship for both Johnny and the film. Tactility also marks another familial relationship. Though the siblings’ father dies early in the film, the most poignant moment confronting this death in the family (however absent he may have been in their lives) is when Jashaun visits the remains of her father’s burnt house much later in the film. In a wordless performance, Jashaun combs through the debris, touching and/or picking up objects here and there as remembrances, and giving way to tears. The burnt house was, in fact, Jashaun’s family home, which burned down during shooting, and Zhao was ‘only there to document the action, and simply observe as Jashaun and her life presented me with the story it wished to tell.’ The thematic motif of the tactile is also expressed through the boxing scenes with Johnny (though the film does not fully follow through with this aspect of his life). A last, significant moment of tactility helps to conclude the film and strongly conveys Johnny’s insight into his own sense of place: driving with a friend outside of Pine Ridge, he wanders around and at one point picks up some dry earth and crumbles it in his hand; not as a gesture of anger but one of respect and realisation.
Having gotten a first film out of her system, with Rider Zhao fully gives in to a minimalist-poetic visual aesthetic of the actual/recreated/staged without worrying about generic elements and allows the body-being of not just human but also animal this time to take center stage. This aesthetic is also guided by a resounding quiet, a quiet that respectfully makes way for the body to speak and communicate. The most extraordinary moments of the film are therefore those with Brady interacting with horses as they (get to) know each other in a way that is not entirely reliant on words, thereby also relating his psychological disorientation and resilience and compassion through them: Brady’s last moments with Gus before his father sells him, affectionately patting his neck/head and going for one final ride together; his first meeting with Apollo, who belongs to a family friend, and then training him during the short amount of time that they have together since Apollo becomes injured; training a couple of other horses that belong to another family friend, all of which requires Brady to use his entire body and rely considerably on touch. A communion and trust reside between Brady and horses at the level of the body and touch that the film captures ever so quietly and subtly, simply by allowing them to be (whether it be Brady playing or being Brady, or a combination of the two), respecting them in realising this bond, not rushing such moments by editing them into fragments, and instead employing sustained shots that, over time, feel like caresses themselves. For throughout the film are shots of not just the horses but more specifically their eyes, as if the film is also trying to fathom their animal consciousness as well as paying respect to their gaze—though mute—as living beings that are as much a part of Pine Ridge as the Lakota. This physical, tactile connection is the film’s undeniable emotional as well as philosophical core.
The strength of this very connection for Brady is challenged and affirmed in several contrasting/complementary ways. The sequences at the local convenience store where he gets work as a cashier while he heals are strikingly, even almost comically, composed of shots on the tactile monotony of ringing up products or arranging them on shelves, a far cry from the excitement of the outdoors. As Zhao recounts, ‘for Brady, working, shooting in the supermarket wearing that outfit […] was the hardest thing he’s ever done in his whole life. He said, “The idea of doing that, I wanted to kill myself.” He’s never been stuck in a room more than ten minutes in his whole life.’ Then there is the stark reality of his hand seizures, constantly reminding him of his love of rodeo and his injury. And, of course, his visits with ‘big brother’ Lane at a clinic where he undergoes physical therapy. Lane Scott was a successful rodeo rider until the automobile accident that left him paralysed. Every now and then scenes of Brady watching footage of some of their past rodeos on his cell phone, by himself or with Lane when visiting him, appear in the film, thus reminding the spectator that the body-beings of these men (not to mention their invisibility) are all too real. At the same time, Lane’s indomitable spirit transcends his physical condition and is a remarkable, grounded external presence in Brady’s internal tug-of-war—making of their conversations by hand all the more crucial and, by extension, rejecting any attempt to be defined simply by their injuries or other one-dimensional categories.
 See http://songsmybrotherstaughtme.com/about-the-movie/.
 In an interview, Zhao has even joked that her first two films will eventually constitute a trilogy. See Paul Debruge, ‘10 Directors to Watch: Chloé Zhao Pioneers Native American Portrayals in ‘The Rider,’ Variety (January 3, 2018), https://variety.com/2018/film/features/10-directors-to-watch-chloe-zhao-the-rider-1202652010/.
 Alcohol is banned on the reservation.
 And understandably so, as Jandreau was one of the many Lakota cowboys whom Zhao met during the making of Songs.
 Interview with Chloé Zhao, in Songs My Brother Taught Me DVD (Kino Lorber, 2015).
 Werner Herzog, ‘Minnesota declaration,’ in Herzog on Herzog, ed. Paul Cronin (New York: Faber, 2002), 301.
 See http://songsmybrotherstaughtme.com/about-the-movie/.
 Bilge Ebiri, ‘This Is Not Your Last Rodeo,’ Village Voice (May 21, 2017), https://www.villagevoice.com/2017/05/21/this-is-not-your-last-rodeo/.