Critical Writing Index

Culture Shock

by Steven Loft

Toronto: V tape, 2008

ISBN 978-0-9734831-6-1

This publication accompanied “Culture Shock”, a programme co-presented by VTape and the Goethe-Institut Toronto as part of the 2008 imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, supported also by the National Gallery of Canada. This project, curated by Steven Loft, commissioned four Indigenous Artists - Ehren Bear Witness, Keesic Douglas, Bonnie Devine, and Darryl Nepinak - to engage with collections of “Western” films from West and East Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, producing new short films in response.

An introduction by Sonja Griegoschewski and Doing Popescu, Director and Deputy Director of Goethe-Institut Toronto, connects the West German “Western” films to the 19th-century novels of Karl Friedrich May upon which they were initially based. They also reflect briefly on the political sensibilities of the “Red Westerns” by East Germany’s DEFA film studios.

An introduction by Lisa Steele notes the innovation and critical complexity of the project, which she frames as part of an ongoing dialogue on how Indigeneity is constructed and defined and politics of cultural representation and participation.

“Coyote and Karl” by Steven Loft is a piece of writing in the form of a fictional narrative that provides an entry point to the program. The text includes excerpts from the writing of Karl Friedrich May, a German author who wrote popular “Western” novels in the late 19th century despite having never visited North America. In the story, Coyote, an Indigenous man of unspecified heritage, is a prison guard listening to an incarcerated Karl read stories he’s written about people and places he lacks real context for.

“Culture Shock”, the curatorial essay by Steven Loft, opens by re-defining the titular phrase “culture shock” from an anti-colonial perspective, asking what culture shock means to Indigenous people. Loft uses the phrase to refer to disenfranchisement and loss of access to one’s culture, isolation, cultural genocide, and ensuing conditions of “psycho-social amnesia”. By contrast, Loft writes that the anthropological lens of colonial cultural productions which supposedly document societies and cultures relegate them to the past, presenting them as precarious and on the verge of extinction. Loft contextualizes the German cinematic adaptations of Karl May’s novels as acts of cultural revisionism that entered the German popular psyche. He also engages with the political intentions of the Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft, the East German film studio which produced so-called “Indianerfilmes” as a denouncement of American imperialism. Nevertheless, the imagery of these films remained consistent with “Imaginary Indian” mythic tropes, romanticization of Indigenous people represented by and for a white European gaze with no understanding or access to real Indigenous histories and ways of life.

Discussing the program “Culture Shock” and the new commissioned work by Indigenous filmmakers engaging with this sub-genre of 20th-century German popular cinema, Loft considers the significance of Indigenous people engaging with such harmful mythologies in their own contemporary artistic production. He suggests that this can be a radical anti-colonial practice towards Indigenous cultural sovereignty and self-determination. Loft writes that this dialogue asserts the plurality and ongoing vitality of Indigenous cultures, locating these cultures in relation to a history of colonialism and countering revisionism and appropriation. He references Gerald McMaster’s idea of the “double-entendre of re-enactment” to describe these subversive cultural practices by Indigenous artists. Describing the works by the participating filmmakers, Loft highlights the significance of satire and humour as anti-colonial strategy and politics of dissent.

“European Fantasy: Shifting Images of Indianess”, an essay by Stephen S. Foster, further explores the mythologized images of Indigeneity in North American popular culture as compared and contrasted to German genre films. As an Indigenous writer, Foster is interested in engaging with alternative images and cultural representations of Indigeneity including their revisionism and mythic tropes. Foster writes that these German cultural productions emerged in a different discursive context, but are simulacra, based on images that are themselves unreal. Rooting these systems of colonial representation in European philosophy and the fascination with the trope of the “noble savage” in 19th-century Western romanticism, Foster problematizes the German films’ ethnographic curiosity. Engaging with both West and East German genre films influenced by Karl May’s written work and Hollywood Westerns, Foster discusses both their historical inaccuracies - their replication of composite, fantastical constructions of “Indanness” - and the specific cultural context embedded into these films, such as Cold War anxieties and critiques of capitalism and imperialism.

The publication includes summaries of the video works included in the program, and bios of the curator, writer, and four commissioned filmmakers.

ITEM 2008.203 – available for viewing in the Research Centre

Videos, Artworks and Artists Cited

introducing...Sonja Griegoschewski

introducing...Doina Popescu

introducing...Lisa Steele

Coyote and KarlSteven Loft

Culture ShockSteven Loft

European Fantasy: Shifting Images of IndianessStephen S. Foster

Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi (Winnetou and the Half-Blood Apanatschi)Harald Philipp

The Story of Apinachie and Her Readheaded WarriorBear Witness

War PonyKeesic Douglas

Die Söhne Der Grossen Bärin (The Sons of the Great Bear)Josef Mach

A Grim Fairy TaleBonnie Devine

Zwe Indianer Aus WinnipegDarryl Nepinak

Chingachgook: The Great SnakeRichard Groschopp

In the land of the HeadhuntersEdward Sheriff Curtis

The Sons of Great Mother BearJoseph Mach