By Anita Neal Harrison
JOANNA HEARNE was already in love with film studies. Then came the 1998 movie Smoke Signals.
A doctoral student at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Hearne recognized the importance of the first feature-length film written, directed and acted by Native Americans even before seeing it. But her full appreciation didn’t come until the next spring. That’s when she began teaching a high school writing class through a university outreach program on the nearby Tohono O’odham reservation. Her students there raved about the movie depicting reservation youths doing regular teenage things, such as playing basketball and taking road trips.
“I saw how much the Native students loved that film,” Hearne says. “I saw their response to it, and something clicked for me.”
Fascinated by movie’s role in shaping audiences’ understanding of themselves and others, Hearne chose to concentrate her budding academic career on issues of cinematic representation. Of particular interest was Native Americans’ use of film to subvert popular images of themselves as a marginal, “vanishing” people. Call it a form of “communicative justice,” she says.
“When people tell their own stories, that’s a very powerful moment of self-determination,” Hearne says. “One of the ways that Native people have been defined by outsiders, particularly industries like Hollywood, has been as a sort of ‘vanishing’ figure. … The sense of a receding or vanishing people has been this predominant trope over much more than a century.”
But when Native Americans tell stories, the narrative is different.
“They don’t tell a story about vanishing. They don’t tell a story about decline: They tell stories about continuity, about the past, present and future,” says Hearne. “They tell stories about growing families. They tell stories about real hu- man beings with real problems, who can address those problems.”
Today, Hearne is an assistant professor of film studies in MU’s English Department and the author of two books, Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western, published by the State University of New York Press, and Smoke Signals: Native Cinema Rising, from the University of Nebraska Press. Both are scheduled for release in December.
Hearne is also a 2012 Kemper Fellow for Teaching Excellence, an honor bestowed in recognition of her success in helping both graduate and undergraduate students develop the vocabulary and habits they need to perceive, question and analyze media — particularly visual media.
“Although students come to class having lived in a media-saturated world, they don’t come to class having critical literacy tools for media,” she says. “They might learn about metaphor in English class in high school, but they’re not learning the names of camera shots. They're not learing about theories of our relationship to the screen. … And that’s empowering, critically, when you have the language to critique, to notice, to be aware.”
Since childhood, Hearne has been alert to how people tell stories. She credits this in part to tales told by her mother, a professor of children’s literature and storytelling at the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois.
“I was always the listener in the storytelling relationship,” Hearne says. “But I found that paying attention to the way we tell stories in person was an advantage in paying attention to how we tell stories electronically. Visual analysis is powerfully satisfying to me — being able to talk about how the visual makes meaning for us.”
Like her students, Hearne finds that “talking back to screens” by naming camera angles and noticing editing choices makes for a more enjoyable evening with the DVD player. But, she adds, teaching media literacy is not meant to be about helping trendy kids sound cool. Nor is it intended to instill a greater appreciation for the realities of the Native American experience, though this would be a plus.
The real goal, she says, is more far-reaching.
“These are lifelong critical thinking skills,” she says, “It’s about students’ writing, their reading, their conversations with people, their judgments in the future, their citizenship.”
CRITICAL THINKER: Joanna Hearne at the Missouri Theatre in Columbia.