I for NDN | Collaboration with Darryl Nepinak | 2011 | VHS->DV | 1:34
Retro children’s television takes a comical jab when one letter of the alphabet gets a new association. A comment on the implicit assumptions embedded in our most basic education.
“I for NDN (2011), a very short, seemingly simple film by Clint Enns and Darryl Nepinak, illustrates some of the complexity of the role camp may play in certain works of audiovisual appropriation.1 It begins with the sound of a bell and a simple logo of a schoolhouse along with the title “School Craft presents Learn at Home with your teacher Fran Allison.” The graphics are rudimentary, and the quality of the video suggests early television transferred to VHS. Fran, a middle-aged white woman with bouffant hair wearing a yellow sweater and pearls, appears sitting in front of a display of flowers and behind a desk on which we see a rack holding several square cards. She speaks to the camera in the exaggerated tones with which an adult may address a child, saying,
Hello! Remember our friends A and E from yesterday? Well, today we’re going to learn the sounds of more letters. . . . Now you know who this is, don’t you? Of course. An Indian. And what is the sound you hear at the beginning of the word “Indian.” I-i-is the sound of the letter “i” as in “Indian.”
When Fran points to a card, instead of a drawing of an Indian, we see a moving live-action image of a man in a T-shirt smoking a cigarette, which has been inserted into the rectangular frame of the card. In fact, this is one of the filmmakers, Darryl Nepinak, who is an indigenous Salteaux man. At first, Nepinak appears oblivious of the woman’s voice, but as she repeats the word “Indian,” he looks around like he is trying to figure out where the voice is coming from. Fran reappears and continues: “So let’s go over the letters we learned so far with this little song,” and music begins as she sings,
The clue to ‘a’ is in the apple, a-a-apple, a-a-apple. The clue to ‘e’ is in the elephant, e-eelephant, e-e-elephant. The clue to ‘i’ is in the Indian I-I- Indian, I-I-Indian. In apple, elephant, and Indian, begin the words to find the clue.
As she sings, we see a close-up of the three cards bearing the individual letters and three cards bearing, respectively, a drawing of an apple, a drawing of an elephant, and—once again—a moving image of Nepinak. Fran’s hand points a stick of chalk at the letters and images as she sings. Nepinak dances happily as she sings about and points to the apple and elephant, but as she points to him, he suddenly stops, looking confused and somewhat irritated. The film then cuts back to Fran saying, “Now we have learned five letters and we can begin our first words.” This is followed by the sound of the bell again and a title announcing, “End of Monday lesson.” Immediately thereafter, the credits to Enns and Nepinak’s film appear accompanied by the original card bearing the drawn image of a stereotypical Indian with headband, feathers, and braids.
Clearly, the gaze solicited by I for NDN transforms the Learn at Home footage into an instance of naïve camp. To begin with, the fact that Fran is addressing children lends an artificiality to her tone, noticeable to any adult listening. Her earnestness, which would likely appeal to children, is likely to seem excessive to an adult audience. Moreover, our sense of the naivety of the footage is significantly increased because the footage is old. To a contemporary audience, the Learn at Home footage—originally aired in the 1960s—now appears campy in part because of its “old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé qualities”: Fran’s hair and clothing, the overly decorative setting, the tinny quality of the sound, and the basic graphics. Our sense of distance from the 1960s allows us the detachment to perceive the footage as naïve and therefore potentially nostalgic and charming, evidence of a so-called “simpler time.”
However, the insertion of Nepinak’s image in place of the drawn “Indian” adds another dimension to the spectatorial experience, transforming what might seem simply na ï ve into something more revealing. The appearance of a live-action contemporary person in this dated, artificial setting also solicits our identification. Whether or not a given spectator is indigenous, the audience is likely to identify with Nepinak’s sense of bewildered frustration at becoming the equivalent of an apple or an elephant in Fran’s lesson. In addition, the time and space of I for NDN refuses to fully cohere, soliciting a dislocating gaze that does not allow us to look at the Learn at Home footage from a comfortable or stable position. Nepinak belongs (more or less) to our here and now, implicating our own time in the objectification of indigenous people. While we may find the Learn at Home footage nostalgic and charming to some degree, we are also encouraged to see its complicity with the real harm done to actual indigenous people, then and now. During the 1960s when Learn at Home was produced, for instance, many indigenous children were being forcibly taken from their families and often terribly mistreated in “residential schools” in Canada. At the same time, the presence of Nepinak’s contemporary body implies the continuity of discrimination against indigenous people in our own time.
Sontag argued that camp is not a form of cynicism or that, if it is, it is a “sweet cynicism.” She further suggests that camp requires “underinvolvement” and “detachment,” that it does not moralize. It is amoral rather than immoral. Hence, if an appropriation film mocks its object, it ceases to be campy and becomes a form of ridicule. I for NDN, however, treads but does not cross the line into ridicule. Part of the reason the film is fun is that it allows us to enjoy the naivety of the Learn at Home footage—while also making a significant critique. Enns and Nepinak’s film does not so much ridicule Fran Allison as it draws attention to the fact that a “simpler time” was also a time in which certain assumptions and expressions that we now see as racist and objectifying were permissible. Indeed, they were not just permissible but also actively and thoughtlessly passed on to children even during a lesson whose purpose was simply to teach them the sound of the vowels. Without actively moralizing, I for NDN indicates how thoroughly ideological education is even when it does not notice its assumptions—which is, of course, precisely the definition of hegemonic ideology.
The experience of watching I for NDN, then, involves a complex layering of gazes. First, there is the earnest and unironic gaze originally solicited by Learn at Home, that of innocent (implicitly white) children learning their vowels. Second, there is the camp gaze that appreciates the naïve, dated, and overly staged aspects of the Learn at Home video. Finally, there is the critical, dislocating gaze that recognizes that the footage is, from a contemporary perspective, unwittingly dehumanizing to an entire population. Thus, this film demonstrates how audiovisual appropriation can participate in the enjoyment associated with the experience of camp while simultaneously producing a serious critique.
Although the affective experiences of watching Halimuhfack and I for NDN are quite differ ent, what unites them is the fact that, through their strategies of embodied interruption and dislocation, they both make vis ib le the white gaze that structured their source materials. The gaze of the ethnographic recordings and interview with Hurston in Halimuhfack and the children’s educational programming in I for NDN were allowed to masquerade as neutral because whiteness has long been the cultural default in North America. None of t hese sources is maliciously racist, yet they are revealed as part and parcel of white supremacy precisely b ecause there was no malice involved. By placing the disruptive nonwhite body into the space of these recordings, these two films—and others like them—solicit a dislocating gaze and thereby refuse to let white supremacy retain its apparent coherence.” – Jaimie Baron, Reuse, Misuse, Abuse : The Ethics of Audiovisual Appropriation in the Digital Era (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2020), 102-106.
September 22, 2021. Festival of (In)appropriation: Remix, Reuse, Recycle, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archives, Berkeley California. Curated by Jamie Baron.
November 15, 2015. Winnipeg Handshake, Echo Park Film Centre, Los Angeles, California. Organized by Open City Cinema.
November 14, 2015. Winnipeg Handshake, Other Cinema, San Francisco, California. Organized by Open City Cinema)
November 10, 2015. Winnipeg Handshake, Black Hole Cinematheque, Oakland, California. Organized by Open City Cinema.
November 3, 2013. Perfect Day, Trinity Square Video, Toronto, Ontario. Curated by John G. Hampton.
April 20, 2013.Panorama Short Films, 16th Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, Austin, Texas.
April 6, 2013. Festival of (In)appropriation #5, Metro Cinema, Edmonton, Alberta. Curated by Jaimie Baron, Lauren Berliner, and Greg Cohen.
November 15, 2012. Continental Drift, Winnipeg Cinemateque, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Curated by Jenny Western.
November 11, 2012. Festival of (In)appropriation #, Egyptian Theatre, Los Angeles, California. Curated by Jaimie Baron, Lauren Berliner, and Greg Cohen.
October 18, 2012. Tweet This!, Youth Shorts Program, ImagineNative, Toronto, Ontario .
October 13, 2012. Cutting Room, Antimatter [Media Art], Victoria, British Columbia.
September 8, 2012. LSD Factory, Sydney Underground Film Festival, Sydney, Australia.
- For a related analysis of this film published in French, see Jaimie Baron, “Un «Indien» dans les archives : le document trouvé et l’image composite,” Decadrages: Cinéma, a travers champs: Cinéma de re-montage 34—36 (Fall 2016/Spring 2017): 56– 64.