(*homocinematically inclined)

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Two Spirits, One Brief Life

Traditional Navajo culture used the word nadleehi, or "two-spirit," to refer to male-bodied persons who possessed a feminine nature. Some today may call them "effeminate" or "transgender," often in a disparaging sense. There was a time, however, when such people enjoyed an honored position in North America.

Sadly, Fred Martinez, Jr. was not one of them. The 16-year old from the border town of Cortez, Colorado became one of the youngest hate crime victims in modern history when he was brutally murdered in 2001. Martinez's only "offense" was to put on make-up and dress in female attire, which led his assailant, Shaun Murphy, to abduct him from a local rodeo one night. Murphy would later brag to friends about having killed "a fag." Martinez's body laid in the desert for five days before it was discovered by two boys at play.

An insightful new documentary about the Martinez case will make its premiere in June. Appropriately titled Two Spirits, it will air as part of the PBS series Independent Lens. The film will also have several special theatrical screenings in California and elsewhere. Please visit the PBS website for more information.

Two Spirits, directed by Lydia Nibley, utilizes gorgeous location photography (by David A. Armstrong) and an effective mix of interviews with those who knew Martinez, archival footage, and recreations of moments from the young nadleehi's life and death. It doesn't take viewers long to agree with one commentator who remarks, "The place where two discriminations (in this case, against Native Americans and transgender people) meet is a dangerous place to live."

Efforts by some to eradicate two-spirit people began long before 2001. The Spanish conquistadores were horrified to discover nadleehi in America, and fed them to wild dogs as a form of entertainment. Later, the post-Civil War schooling system established by the US government for Native Americans "sought to rub their culture out of them," according to the film.

Martinez's mother, Pauline Mitchell, is interviewed extensively in Two Spirits. Sad but dignified, she recounts her experience raising her unique child and trying to protect him from a prejudiced society beyond their community. Martinez didn't have to travel far from home (just a few miles) to discover how vicious the outside world could be. Mitchell continues to mourn her son-daughter's loss nearly ten years later, despite several mystical experiences she says she has had wherein Fred has appeared to her.

As illustrated in the film and by Martinez's life, ours is "a many-gendered world." Navajos have traditionally believed that there are four genders among human beings: males who identify as males, women who identify as females, men who identify as females and women who identify as males. The term "two-spirit" is often applied to the latter two, but it ultimately describes the entire spectrum of gender and sexual expression among Native Americans.

Two Spirits has been recognized by the American Library Association (ALA) as one of 15 Notable Videos for Adults released in the past two years. The documentary and the educational outreach efforts of the Fred Martinez Project have also been awarded the Monette-Horwitz Distinguished Achievement Award "for outstanding activism, research, and scholarship to combat homophobia." With or without such kudos, the film should not be missed.

Reverend's Rating: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

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