‘Natives’ Director Jeremy Hersh on NYU to SXSW
Despite its 20-minute runtime, I finished Natives feeling as though I’d seen the beginning of what will be a sterling career for director Jeremy Hersh. Fresh out of an undergraduate NYU film major, he managed to get one of his first shorts accepted at South By Southwest—and deservedly so. Natives follows Anita, a Seneca woman, and Rachel, her white, Jewish, and very awkward girlfriend, as they visit Anita’s parents on the Seneca reservation they still call home. Rachel, having read one or more books on American Indian culture, probes the formidable couple in an ill-advised attempt to uncover their views on “Two-Spirit”, an ancient concept she thinks is as close to a gay relationship as they’ll understand.
In the last two minutes—the film’s most powerful—everything seems to fall apart, though Hersh hopes to expand the film. I hope we get a happy ending, because despite a few factors working against the film, we come to respect Anita’s long struggle to break away from home and smile at Rachel’s unbelievable klutziness. It helps to know this is a comedy (perhaps black comedy) going in. I was thinking “drama”, which made Rachel’s dialogue seem like clumsy writing rather than the necessary stuffing in a comedic straw man, soon to be burnt (how often does a naïve white protagonist actually have to pay for her ignorance?). And while Hersh is refreshingly clear in telling us we’re under no obligation either to love or hate Anita’s parents, they come across as so mild-mannered it’s hard to believe a pair of grown woman would fight over how best to appease them
Still, despite these bumps in the road, Hersh takes less than half an hour to develop characters more complex than most we see in Hollywood comedies, and I can’t wait to see the feature-length Natives. Before he returned to New York, I caught him for an interview on the film, his directing career, and the problems inherent in exploring a culture not one’s own.
OOO: We’ll start simple: where did your idea for Natives’ plot come from?
Hersh: I was looking back on relationships that I’ve had, and sort of seeing in myself—sometimes in the other person—this thing where the person is with you not for who you really are, but for what you represent to the world, what being with you seems to say about them. I was also looking back at some of my favorite films of the past few years, especially Winter’s Bone; those films people sometimes call “poverty porn”. Films where privileged, rich people go into another culture, research it, and eventually document it on film. You have the idea of appropriation, and then, as for the culture that gets appropriated—nobody really seems to care what they’re like outside of what they’ve already seen.
OOO: Have you seen Twelve O’Clock Boys here? It’s very much along the same lines.
Hersh: I wanted to, so badly! I want to make films like that, and yet, I felt trapped in my own experience for this film, which wound up being very personal; it’s about my relationship to this foreign culture I studied. [Twelve O’Clock Boys kept its director’s life and ideas very much out of the picture.]
OOO: So have you been the Rachel in any personal relationship like that within the film?
Hersh: Yeah! But not as far as the racial or cultural aspect has been concerned. In a more metaphorical sense. None of the actual plot points, but the same feeling.
OOO: What’s your history as a filmmaker?
Hersh: This is my first film, actually. I just finished NYU film school as an undergrad, and this was my senior thesis. So this is kind of my first attempt at anything—I really haven’t done much.
OOO: What have been some of the more unexpected crowd reactions to the film?
Hersh: I had someone say: “I loved it, and I’m so sorry; I couldn’t help but laugh.” She was sincerely apologetic, which I found strange, because I intended it as a comedy!
OOO: How else do you plan to distribute the film?
Hersh: There are sites where you can post short films for people to buy, but Vimeo is also one of the best routes—if you just open it there, more people see it than any other way. Eventually, that’s the plan.
OOO: How did you go about conducting research?
Hersh: The first thing I did was just to read everything I could. That was interesting, because there was very little written about the “Two-Spirit” idea, and what was written contradicted itself. There’s debate over whether it exists at all within Seneca culture; some sources will say it just doesn’t, while others say they’re just very good at hiding its existence from white folks. I reached out to the North American Two-Spirit society, and they were very helpful; finally, I just left home to drive around some of these reservations, talking to anyone I could find. Some people asked me to leave and told me I was trespassing, which made for interesting research…
OOO: I’m amazed you had the time, in the middle of your senior year.
Hersh: Yeah… (looks a bit dazed by the memories)
OOO: Where’d you find the actresses?
Hersh: Emily, who plays Rachel, I’d seen in two plays. I loved her energy, reached out, and though we sort of had an audition, I really just cast her. Kendra, I found through a casting director.
OOO: Was she a student?
Hersh: Not at all. A full-time actress. She was in another short that was at Sundance two years ago: OK Breathe Auralee. They’re making it into a feature now!
OOO: Is that something you could see happening for Natives?
Hersh: That’s exactly what we’re hoping to do; I’m writing the feature script now. We’ll see more of the reservation, more family members, complicated things.
OOO: When it came to Two-Spirit, did it seem like an individual decision whether to accept the idea, or did people relate their decisions to tribal practice?
Hersh: Individual people gave me different answers, but they always phrased it in terms of the tribe. No one says: “The tribe says this, but I disagree.” Instead, it’s “this is part of Seneca culture”, or “no, it’s not”; fortunately or unfortunately, everyone I asked turned out to be fairly progressive, whether or not they thought it was a tribal thing. We tend to think of gay rights as a constantly progressive thing within America, compared to the past, but with American Indians it’s the opposite; it used to be much easier to be Two-Spirit, which isn’t the same thing as being gay, but had some similarities—and with Westernization, that changed. There’s a Sherman Alexie book where the kids on a reservation are homophobic, and their grandmother looks back on a time when they wouldn’t have done that.
OOO: Did you think there was progressive bias, in that anyone speaking to you was likely to be friendly to these liberal ideas?
Hersh: That was definitely an issue. But I’m still grateful there were these people who just refused to talk about it at all, because that’s where some elements of the mother’s character come from in the film.
OOO: Did you worry about running into stereotypes writing Rachel’s character, since the “white girl in the wrong place” is such a common figure on screens?
Hersh: Basically, she’s me. I just wrote what I thought I would say and do; on the page, it can look iffy, but I knew that Emily would bring this amazing humanity and lovability to the role. Once it was in her hands, I knew there would be some repulsion, but also that the audience would feel for her. Still, I also try not to worry about whether my characters are likeable, because that’s a common problem in films, especially with female roles. There just aren’t many canonical unlikeable female characters compared to men.
OOO: How long do you envision the two having been together at the start of the movie? We start with one assumption and end with another.
Hersh: We talked about it being close to their two-year anniversary, but that there was this taboo thing they just didn’t talk about before the film.
OOO: What are your plans after graduating, aside from work on this film?
Hersh: I’m an intern with Sundance in the theater department, which works as a day job. I’m starting a theater company with two of my best friends, writing a couple of plays—just writing a lot, including this feature…
OOO: We’re used to the witty back-and-forth of characters like Rachel and Anita, but the parents are very different. How did you intend the audience to see them and their simple, no-nonsense lives?
Hersh: I wanted to have a very different point of view for them. We’re used to movies and plays where all four characters have very strong and separate views on a certain conflict, but in real life, there are also people who just don’t get into conflicts, and that’s where the parents came from. I wanted there to be a mixture of Anita’s fear of them, and Rachel’s—well, more fear, but I didn’t want them to come across as standard, homophobic villains. They had to be human, with a sense that the relationship just isn’t this hyper-dramatic thing in their lives. They’re just trying to get through the weekend.
OOO: The mother’s insistence that Two-Spirit doesn’t exist in Seneca culture feels very accusatory upon delivery—almost like an attack. Was that your intention?
Hersh: It’s much more of a “whatever” feeling, except that she’s also pissed off that Rachel is generalizing between tribes. In the original cut, there’s a line where she specifically says, “white people seem to think all tribes are alike”, but we decided that was too on-the-head. She’s not that pissed-off, but she thinks Rachel has overstepped her boundaries. In Seneca culture, married couples don’t even kiss on the street, or hold hands; there are ideas about what is private and what is not, that you keep a respectful distance. And instinctively, that feels homophobic to me, but it’s actually completely different, and I’ve realized something: the most important thing I can understand about this culture is that I don’t understand it.