There are certain presences never explicitly mentioned in Pow Wow –-director Robinson Devor’s 2016 tone poem documentary on the denizens of California’s Coachella Valley (subtitled: “Ethnographic Encounters with the People of the Coachella Valley [2010-2015])”, praised upon its initial release but only now available to stream—but whose specters haunt the frame nonetheless.
One is the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which as of a week ago just celebrated its 22nd year in Indo, one of the main population centers in the arid desert region known alternately as the Coachella Valley and the Greater Palm Springs Area (also home to the city of Palm Springs, as well as Palm Desert, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage).
Every year, thousands of people—mostly youngsters, although as the namesake fest has grown to become the premier American music event of the calendar year, morphing from a celebration of alternative music and art into an increasingly corporatized showcase for the biggest headliners in the industry, its demographic has likewise expanded—flock to the desert to partake in two weekends of wild partying. This infuses the local economy with lots of cash, while also scouring the landscape and draining its natural resources.
But, as Devor’s doc makes clear, that has been the story of the Coachella Valley going on for generations now, long before the festival came to town. Pow Wow takes its title from is another annual party, one co-opted from its Indigenous origins by the rich country club members, a collection of husky, pink-skinned, day-glo golf pant and salmon button-up-wearing white men and their trophy wives, who live in a a state of monotonous debauchery.
The featured interviews with these folks—retired lawyers, accountants, Vegas showmen, developers—brings to mind better known accounts of monstrous wealth like The Queen of Versailles or The Real Housewives of [Insert City], but Devor gives them more depth. Aloof as they are, they are not ignorant of their place in history. One of the menfolk notes the irony of how the titular Native celebration “morphed into a cowboy thing,” while one of the wives, dressed up like a stereotypical Indian, sarcastically remarks, “I’m Native American. I was born right here in the United States.”
This brings us to the other unnamed presence: Donald Trump, elected the same year the film debuted at film festivals. While any direct mention of politics in the movie is brief—such as when one especially creepy rich fuck speaks to the broader economic anxieties that hover over his community like the black winds that blow over the valley during fire season—it’s clear we’re getting an unfettered glimpse into Trump’s base. This is played up in the film’s advertising, with it’s trailer using the tag line “Time to Make America Weird Again,” but Devor isn’t interested in his subjects’ individual politics so much as the low-key strangeness (at times, madness) that runs through these lives, the same which had steadily been building in the eight years prior to Trump’s election and exploded in the aftermath, infecting the nation as a whole.
This same madness contains a spiritual component that Devor captures via his elliptical rhythms and surreal yet natural compositions (his work recalls, more than anything else, the experimental films of James Benning). Along with his key framing devices, breaking his narrative into chapters with titles like “Warfare, “Rites & Rituals”, “Prophecy”, “Extinction”, he manages this by contrasting the grotesquely materialist existence of the country club set with the history and mythology of the Indigenous community whose land was and continues to be stolen by them.
In most filmmaker’s hands, this would make for an obvious trite observance, but Devor is able to tap the vein of weirdness inherent to the white American soul—the same he’s explored in all of his previous films, including the incredible black comedy/neo-noir The Woman Chaser (2000), his offbeat cop drama Police Beat (2005), and his infamous but empathetic documentary on the even more infamous Mr. Hands case Zoo (2007)—in order to bring forth something original and unnerving.
In a memorable snippet early on in the film, one of the country clubbers—a particularly eccentric man who dresses like an A.I. rendition of a golfer and drives around in a golf cart molded in the likeness of Bob Hope—ruminates on the artificial beauty of he and his neighbors’ nighttime lawn lights, which cast the real desert into a reflection of the mythologized one found in old Western paintings. It is clear that these hucksters have not merely bought into their own bullshit, they’ve managed to turn said bullshit into a full-on mythology. I can think of no better summation of the Trump years than that.
But these one-percenters are not the sole focus of the doc. Devor showcases other members of the community, including a haunted homicide detective, two historians, a playwright, and one young Indigenous man (whose silent kid brother is always hanging around in the background) living on one of the reservations.
Much discussion is given over to the Indigenous history, traditions, and myths (most of it coming from the aforementioned white historians and playwright, the latter of whom is quick to point out that he’s no expert on Native customs, even as he acts like one anyway). Large focus is dedicated er to the local legend of Willie Boy, a member of the Chemehuevi tribe who, in 1909, absconded with his lover Carlotta (or, depending on the version of the story being told, his victim) on foot and led law enforcement (several of whom he killed) on the last true Western manhunt through the desert. In 1969, the saga was turned into a movie, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, starring Robert Redford and Robert Blake (as the title hero), shot on location and featuring many of the real life members of the tribe as actors.
Devor intersperses his film with clips from the movie, all which feature Blake, the recently deceased actor who was heavily suspected, but eventually acquitted, of murdering his wife in 2001. It’s fitting that Blake should feature so heavily throughout Pow Wow, as his performance in brownface reflects the continuing appropriation of the Indigenous people by white interlopers, while his highly publicized murder trial connects him to the thread of violent crime that Devor threads—including the story of Willie Boy as well as snippets of disturbing anecdotes other interviewees recount for his camera.
The lack of Native voices is very much the point here, although that in and of itself may not be enough to justify the decision for some viewers. In one of Pow Wow’s (eleven, total) reviews on Letterboxd, a user takes the film to task for “thematically presum[ing] the extinction of Native Americans, fetish[izing] that presumed extinction and [using] it as a metaphor for understanding the aimless lives of some rich white people.” I think this misses the point: Devor isn’t chronicling (let alone fetishizing) the extinction of Native American, but of The White Man (as an idea, if not an actual demographic).
(Their extinction isn’t merely cultural, but existential: one of the threads running throughout the film is the hoarding and waste of water. As the catastrophe of climate change grows, these people are no more prepared for it than anyone else.)
During one aerial shot of the desert, we’re treated to this bit of voice over from the local playwright quoting from his play about the Willie Boy legend: “They’re finished–they know they’re finished and they’re clutching onto the ghost dance, they’re clutching onto whatever they can, to their last dances to their spirit which is abandoning them.” While that dialog was written about the Indigenous peoples of the territory, it’s impossible not to think it actually describes the caucasians and their grotesque rituals.
“Pow Wow” is available for digital rental or purchase.