This May Be the Last Time: Sundance Review
Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)
Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo turns to his tribal background for source material for his first feature-length documentary.
Part ethnography, part family history, as well as something of a mystery tale, feature filmmaker Sterlin Harjo’s first full-length documentary is a peculiar hybrid that’s perhaps best categorized as “none of the above.” AMC/Sundance Channel Global’s Park City pickup ensures at least some small-screen exposure, which could see expansion with digital formats. Harjo, a Native American filmmaker whose credits include indie release Four Sheets to the Wind and the verite feature Barking Water, as well as a substantial list of documentary shorts, here considers a topic closer to home: the 1962 disappearance of his grandfather following a car crash.
Harjo begins the film by considering how the mysterious accident led dozens of members of nearby Seminole communities to join the search after his grandfather Pete Harjo vanished when his car plunged off a country bridge and into a river in the middle of the night near Sasakwa, Okla.
As the searchers combed the banks and dragged the river in subsequent days, they sang mournful-sounding hymns of hope and encouragement in tribal dialect, and it’s these songs, a form of a capella “line singing,” that Harjo determines to investigate and elucidate. Speaking with religious leaders of regional Seminole churches, congregationists and his own family members, Harjo discovers that the hymns likely entered the Seminole language via Scottish missionaries, who also influenced rural Appalachia congregations, as well as African American churches in the South during the early 1800s, prior to the tragic relocation of Seminole communities on the notorious “Trail of Tears.”
Tribal members sang the songs on the long forced march and they subsequently became mainstays of churches reestablished in Oklahoma. Most intriguingly, Harjo’s sources help make the connection between one of their religious songs and the Rolling Stones’ cover of the Staples Singers’ gospel tune “The Last Time.”
The mystery of Pete Harjo’s disappearance turns out to be somewhat more prosaic, although Harjo plays out developments in the missing-person search skillfully enough to maintain interest, much in the storytelling tradition of his tribal elders. Interviews with church members and leaders, as well as family members, are somewhat more variable, but mostly impress with their authenticity and enthusiasm.
The ethnographic material at the heart of the film exploring ancestral storytelling and the sources of Native American church hymns, as well as the impending cultural loss as elderly practitioners of tribal languages pass on, warrants further exploration that’s perhaps not best-suited to what’s essentially an extended personal documentary.
The film’s production values, particularly the sound mix, are a few notches above average overall and adequate to the task.
Director: Sterlin Harjo
Producers: Matt Leach, Christina D. King, Sterlin Harjo
Executive producers: Vincent LoVoi, Michael Mason
Directors of photography: Matt Leach, Shane Brown, Sterlin Harjo
Editor: Matt Leach
Music: Ryan Beveridge
No rating, 90 minutes
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