Robinson Devor’s Pow Wow, which opens tonight at Facets for a weeklong run, is a compact and provocative documentary about Americans’ relationship to history. Running just 75 minutes, the film covers plenty of thematic ground, considering the legend of Chemehuevi-Paiute Indian “Willie Boy,” the transformation of California’s Coachella Valley into a suburban environment, the present-day experience of Khaweya Indians (who live on a reservation in the Valley), and the habits of well-to-do whites in the suburban community. Devor subtitled the film “Ethnographic Encounters With the People of the Desert Empire (2010–2015)” and divided it into short chapters with academic headers like “Rites and Rituals.” Pow Wow advances a curious, if somewhat detached perspective that befits an ethnographic study, whether Devor is looking at a Native American reservation, a golf course, or a car dealership. The insights are sometimes wry and sometimes saddening, but always compelling.
Running through the film are multiple reiterations of the Willie Boy story, which takes on mythic proportions through the repetition. Minutes into Pow Wow, a narrator informs us that, in 1909, 25-year-old Willie Boy wanted to marry his 16-year-old cousin; after the girl’s father objected, Willie Boy killed the older man and fled with the girl. White authorities set out on an epic manhunt, but Willie Boy managed to evade capture and was never seen again. One of Devor’s interviewees argues that this historical episode represents “the end of the America we all supposedly love and destroy” in that it highlights the triumph of white authority over Native American independence. Many of the present-day locations that Devor shows represent the legacy of that triumph; in fact he pairs the narrated story of Willie Boy with images of giant lawn mowers grooming a golf course.
Devor also characterizes the victory of white civilization through the title activity, which takes place every year on a golf course in the Coachella Valley. The annual festivity, we learn, had once been a Native American ritual, but has since been co-opted by whites in the community to become an annual celebration of cowboy culture. Devor presents the Pow Wow early on in the film, showing two middle-aged white women dressed up as Native Americans; their clothing is tacky, and the women flaunt it shamelessly. Their behavior clashes jarringly with that of the Native Americans we see living on a Khaweya reservation. These subjects seem modest and attuned with the history of the region, and they treat the land around them with respect. Devor repeatedly shows how whites in the surrounding community ignore the Natives’ model for living in the desert; in an early scene, he cuts from a Native American boy bathing in a private medicinal spring to a sequence of whites living it up in a nearby spa.
This division between past and present is inherent in the very design of the suburban community. Throughout Pow Wow, Devor cuts to aerial shots that show the clear demarcation between cultivated land and uncultivated desert. Some of Devor’s subjects walk or ride horses around the barrier, often stopping to ponder the wild land just beyond their homes. One interviewee describes the beauty of nature when it’s lit up in the evenings by lights installed by a homeowners’ association—a telling detail about white Americans’ tendency to interfere with the natural world. Sometimes this interference takes on a certain grandeur, as in the sequence that shows the vast irrigation system that brings water to the desert community. Other times civilization just appears banal and tasteless, as when some of the wealthy suburbanites cruise around complacently in designer golf carts. In both cases one senses a distance from the exciting history that some of the interviewees describe, making Pow Wow a film about empty spaces in more ways than one.
Pow Wow Showtimes here. Facets Cinematheque, 1517 W. Fullerton, 773-281-4114, facets.org.