Indigenous-led ‘Smoke Signals’ film celebrates 25th anniversary with LA screening

California

The 1998 comedy-drama “Smoke Signals,” by director Chris Eyre, celebrates 25 years on the silver screen.

To honor its 25th anniversary as the first feature film produced, directed and written by Indigenous artists, “Smoke Signals” will be screened in 35mm format at a special event at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles on Thursday, Nov. 30, to mark the end of Native American Heritage Month.

Following the screening, Eyre will discuss the film — which has been praised for its authentic, lighthearted portrayal of Indigenous communities. It was filmed on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in northwest Idaho.

  • A still from Smoke Signals (1998), by director Chris Eyre....

    A still from Smoke Signals (1998), by director Chris Eyre. (Courtesy of Academy Museum of Motion Pictures)

  • The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. (Courtesy...

    The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. (Courtesy of Joshua White / Academy Museum of Motion Pictures)

The coming-of-age comedy-drama centers on Indigenous characters, and is based on screenwriter Sherman Alexie’s short stories. Alexie’s story “This is what it means to say Pheonix, Arizona,” with its comedic adventure plot about navigating grief, became the basis of the “Smoke Signals” script.

The film went on to win the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, the year it premiered.

Eyre remembers being a New York University graduate student, struggling to get funding for the movie that he said reflects his Indigenous heritage, as a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. The film was eventually funded for $1.9 million in 1994 — around $3 million today with inflation.

“As a young filmmaker, a young Native person, a young artist, (Alexie’s) words really just ignited me,” Eyre, 54, said. “The short story just spoke to me and made me say, that’s the movie that I want to make.”

In 2018, “Smoke Signals” was added to the National Film Registry for its cultural significance to film history. It was also inducted into the Library of Congress.

For Eyre — who also directed the AMC+ Native American crime drama and noir thriller “Dark Winds” — the Indigenous focus his work is known for was not intentional, but “instinct.”

“I never was of the allowance that anybody else play Native people other than Native people, because I wasn’t part of the system of Hollywood,” Eyre, 54, said. “I was a graduate of a school that had no experience in Hollywood. And (for Alexie) and I, it just went without saying that the characters were Native Americans, playing Native Americans.”

K.J. Relth-Miller, a Burbank resident and the Director of Film Programs at the Academy Museum, said the movie “stood the test of time” with its themes, visuals, and “distinctly Indigenous lens” that’s become more common in entertainment these days.

“Themes of the importance of family, and also the ways that it grapples with masculinity are fascinating and still relevant in the 2020’s,” Relth-Miller said.

Advance tickets for the Thursday, Nov. 30 screening on Nov. 30 are currently sold out. Standby line tickets are available first-come, first-served.

For more information, visit the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures’ website at academymusem.org.

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