The Exiles

By David Balfour

exiles-kent-mackenzie.jpgThe Exiles, 1961

Of all the cinematic treats that I consumed at the Berlin International Film Festival in early February, none have stayed with me as much as The Exiles. It lingers in my imagination for its bold visuals, its story of people on the margins, its infectious rock soundtrack, and its production process, the use of non-actors and shooting in documentary fashion. It also lingers because despite all of these things it is still very rough, especially the dialogue track (often out of sync). It has staying power in my imagination perhaps because of its imperfections.

The Exiles follows a day in the life of a Native American community living in downtown Los Angeles. These people have all left life on the reservation. They live in the city but work is hard to come by. They are desperately poor. They tend to drink far too much – evenings end up fighting or gambling – adding dents and bruise physical and spiritual to the worn characters. Their lives feel overwhelmed by a pervading sense of sadness.

We meet and get to know each character separately as they go about their lives, shopping in the market, walking down the street, hanging out in the house trying to waste time and stop boredom. Each speaks casually in a voice that accompanies their actions. As if in a documentary interview about they talk about their feelings, fears, and dreams. The combination is alluring. It’s like a direct line into someone’s head. Like looking over at the pregnant woman drinking a can of soda and knowing exactly what she is thinking. The insight is affecting and wonderfully poetic.

exiles-kent-mackenzie-2.jpgThe Exiles, 1961

Around these personal reflections the rest of the film plays out as fictional narrative. We meet and follow various characters as they come together and splinter off into the night. They hang out, try to go dancing, get drunk, fight, and gamble away the little money they saved. This film doesn’t attempt to wrap its strands back together for a single climatic event instead it chooses a braver option and lets the understated nature of the everyday life take precedence. The film becomes a truer document of people living in that world than any contrived narrative. The characters don’t become ciphers or symbols for all the ails of Native Americans, the film is uniquely just about them.

Originally completed in the early 60’s it was made by a very long and interesting production. All the actors are non-professionals, and they are depicting their own lives. They lived in an area that would later be totally flattened; where these flophouses stand soon will rise giant anonymous office buildings. Interest in The Exiles started when clips of it were used in the Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself.

The shoot took several years to complete. The director Kent MacKenzie worked tirelessly to get accepted within the community. He gained their trust, and they agree to re-enact part of their lives on camera. Filming took place on weekends with a makeshift and ever changing crew. Financing was piecemeal, and much of the stock was short ends.

He worked with all the actors in a collaborative manner – they brought themselves to the project. There was, according to those who worked on it and real sense involvement by all. Some characters were dropped during shooting because they ended up in jail or simply move away. The fictional narrative of the film evolved as real life happened to the people portrayed. So in the construction of this film we have the interplay of the documentary and fiction forms – indeed, the interplay of the documented and fictional.

exiles-kent-mackenzie-3.jpgThe Exiles, 1961

Visually the film is remarkable for two reasons. First, it has a strong black and white photography which is brings to mind the work Magnum photographers from the period. The night sequences bristle with electricity. The composition is equally extraordinary. Second, the film captures in greater detail than elsewhere the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, with its markets, bars, stores, and funicular railway. The pattern of life captured has disappeared from that and many other American cities. All of this set to a wonderful rocking soundtrack – that has apparently inspired other filmmakers – not least Tarantino.

What mars the film is a terrible dialogue track. Often out of sync and poorly delivered it was all added in post. It creates a distance between viewers and the film which will stop it travelling beyond a small circle of cineastes. The restoration of the film, of which this print is the result, was not able to have been able to fix this flaw. Or rather, perhaps, they decided that to fix it would go beyond their restorers remit.

But because of flaw, this wilful imperfection and the distance it creates, it has stuck in my thoughts. Outlasting more polished material that feel hermitically sealed by comparison. Watching The Exiles is like seeing the seams in the filmmaking process; allowing you to get a sense of the reality beyond the images. You know on an emotional level as well as intellectual one that what is portrayed isn’t complete. It is real life and all the more affecting for it.

The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie is distributed by Milestone Films 

David Balfour is a writer and producer based in London.