NYTs on “We Shall Remain”

From the NYTs:

IN his two-decade career as a filmmaker Ric Burns has made histories of the exploration of the American West and the settlement of New York City without resorting to the use of dramatic re-creations. In the passionate debate among filmmakers over the documentary form he sides with those who find the acting and low-budget effects too often cheesy and distracting.

Dramatic re-creations were as alien to him as documentary and period work were to Chris Eyre, an American Indian director whose character-intense films include “Smoke Signals” and the adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s novels “Skinwalkers” and “A Thief of Time” for PBS’s “Mystery!”

So it was with some mutual wariness that Mr. Burns and Mr. Eyre teamed up, at the request of the PBS history series “American Experience,” to direct “Tecumseh’s Vision,” one of five documentaries that make up “We Shall Remain.” This series within a series, which will be broadcast for five weeks beginning Monday, uses historians, American Indian experts and dozens of actors to examine moments in American history from the Indians’ perspective.

“Most people think of the U.S. as a country of immigrants, and actually there’s a big story there about the original inhabits of this country and their interaction with those immigrants,” said Sharon Grimberg, the executive producer of “We Shall Remain” with Mark Samels. (Mr. Samels is also the executive producer of “American Experience.”)

“We wanted to move away from either the idea that Native Americans were just hapless victims or ferocious savages,” she said. “We wanted to tell stories about Native Americans’ role in their own history, their own often ingenious and diverse ways of resisting what turned out to be awful challenges.”

“Tecumseh,” the second film in “We Shall Remain,” focuses on this Shawnee leader and his lesser-known but equally influential brother, Lalawethika (also known as Tenskwatawa), who in the early 1800s attempted to unite independent tribes into a single powerful Indian state.

Mr. Eyre also directed the series’s first film, “After the Mayflower,” about the diplomatic alliance between the Wampanoag and the English settlers; and the third, “Trail of Tears,” about tribal debates that preceded the 1838 ouster of the Cherokee to Oklahoma from the Southeast. The other two films, which use more photographs and archival material, are “Geronimo,” directed by Dustinn Craig and Sarah Colt, and “Wounded Knee,” directed by Stanley Nelson. The Web site for the series (pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain), produced by WGBH in Boston in association with Native American Public Telecommunications, also includes 27 contemporary short films made by Indians.

Mr. Eyre, 40 and a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe, was skeptical when approached three years ago. Similar-sounding projects come along often, he said, and the feature film scripts he receives are generally “guilt ridden, and at the end the Indians lose.”

But he eventually embraced the approach of “We Shall Remain,” which spotlights diverse historical episodes rather than trying to make a single narrative out of the stories of this country’s 562 federally recognized tribes.

“It’s a Pandora’s box,” Mr. Eyre said in a joint interview at Mr. Burns’s production offices on the Upper West Side. “This is not the definitive account of that history because that history is so complex. I think just to have the audacity, as they had — to say, ‘We’re going to try to touch on it and open up the box and work through it’ — is pretty incredible.”

Mr. Burns, 54, who is also the producer and writer of “Tecumseh’s Vision,” said he was drawn in by these relatively unknown American stories. “The audience for this is not Native Americans, and it’s not non-Native Americans,” he said. “It’s Americans.”

Starting as what Mr. Eyre called “an arranged marriage,” the production team had some tense moments that needed to be smoothed out by a few walks in the woods. At one point Mr. Burns was so insistent on his vision for a particular shot that he went running a quarter mile across a field to set it up, leaving his exposed legs scratched and bleeding; Mr. Eyre, won over by Mr. Burns’s passion, conceded.

There were other challenges. The two directors appealed to members of the Absentee Shawnee tribe to include a depiction of a tribal football-like game but were rebuffed. “There’s such skepticism among Indians at telling our history in movies,” Mr. Eyre said.

And there was still the problem of the re-creations, a form that Mr. Burns says he generally loathes.

Ms. Grimberg and Mr. Samels were insistent on re-enactments. Some of the stories the series would be telling predated photography. And there wasn’t much in the way of documents and archival material to make them visually interesting in the way pioneered by “The Civil War,” on which Mr. Burns worked with his brother, Ken. “There was no way to really humanize the stories without having some drama in them,” Ms. Grimberg said.

With the cinematographer Paul Goldsmith the team tried to avoid what was so objectionable. “They’re always hokey,” Mr. Burns said, adding that “99 times out of 100” they were merely illustrations.

The team settled on images that included plenty of abstraction, shot from a distance or in extreme close-up, or filmed through reeds. In one scene where Lalawethika falls into an alcohol-induced stupor and has a vision that changes the course of his people’s history, some images move in and out of focus, while others are seen through a haze of campfire smoke.

“There’s always got to be a ratio between what the image discloses and what it holds back,” Mr. Burns said. “If you just give everything, if the camera just sees with blinding clarity all the real estate, the audience goes away. There has to be room for the audience in the image.”

That was a compromise for Mr. Eyre, a graduate of New York University’s film school. “I had to be an irresponsible feature filmmaker, in that I had to start to see things in an obstructed way and see frames as dirtier than I was used to and actually embrace nonactor performances in a way that was organic.”

One breakthrough came when Mr. Burns suggested they film Michael Greyeyes, who plays Tecumseh, as he was riding on horseback away from the camera, getting in place for a shot in which he rides toward the camera. Both shots were used, but the unstaged image — of him riding away — opens the film.

If historical figures “walk and breathe in your imagination for three seconds, then you’ve given a gift,” as a filmmaker, Mr. Burns said.

Mr. Eyre said, “The films are all different, they’re imperfect, but what I love about them is we’re striving for the historical essence in each one of them. That’s all I’m trying to do as a filmmaker, is touch a piece of something that I find to be real.”