During Sean Kernan’s second visit to the Crow Indian Reservation, after he had decided to make a documentary about the Crow people, he was asked by a tribal member what he wanted to say with his film.
“I don’t want to say anything,” Kernan answered. “I want to listen.”
He was true to his word. “Crow Stories,” which will be shown on Oct. 5 at the Yellowstone Art Museum, contains no narration, only the words of people Kernan chose to profile.
For long stretches of the film there are no words at all, just lingering depictions of landscape, broken by the sound of the wind, a train whistle in the distance, or a barking dog.
Kernan, who lives in Connecticut, is primarily a photographer and writer who has also made one documentary before this one. He said in an interview that he has always been drawn to “other universes, other worlds that are unfamiliar.”
That’s why he has done projects about Tibetan monasteries, maximum-security prisons in Alabama and West Virginia, and a boxing club in Kampala, Uganda.
He didn’t go to the Crow Reservation intending to do any sort of project. He merely accompanied a friend who was going there in 2009. Kernan said he spent a week in Crow country, mostly just observing and listening to people, but he also took some photos and a little bit of video.
When he returned home and thought about the trip, and looked at the photos and video, he said he decided, “almost immediately,” to go back and do more filming. He said he ended up making six or seven trips to the Crow Reservation, usually for a week to 10 days.
He tried to remain loose and receptive to what was going on around him. There were occasions when he made plans to film something in particular, “but something better would happen every time.”
“To make good art you have to let yourself get bored,” he said. And when he did, “something completely unexpected would happen. I learned to rely on that.”
On one trip, some people he was with said they needed to go buffalo hunting in preparation for a sun dance ceremony. They spent three days trying to track down the man who had the key to the fence around the buffalo pasture, and by the time Kernan had to leave, disappointed, there had been no hunt.
But on his next visit, he said, “I hardly stepped off the plane when somebody said, ‘Come on. We’re going buffalo hunting.’”
That hunting trip, into the Bighorn Mountains, is chronicled in “Crow Stories,” as is the visit to a meat processing plant where the bison is cut up and packaged.
On another occasion, at an arrow-throwing contest, one man told Kernan that his cousin, Kevin Dust, was a champion arrow thrower. Where was he? In France, as it turned out, and he’d been there for 20 years, appearing in a Wild West show at the Disneyland in Paris.
Kernan managed to visit Dust in Paris, and Dust ended up appearing in two long segments of the documentary.
He also visited with Joe Medicine Crow, the tribal leader and war hero who died in March 2016 at the age of 103. In the film, Medicine Crow shares some life lessons, speaking in Crow and English.
There is music in the film, too — Ettinge Little Owl spontaneously breaking into song outside his home, and a performance of “Prayer” by Christian Parrish Takes the Gun, a Crow rap artist whose stage name in Supaman.
Crow poet Henry Real Bird recites his poem, “Rivers of Horse” as the backdrop to Kernan’s footage of a herd of ponies galloping through a high mountain meadow.
“Crow Stories” has been shown around the country and once in France since it was completed late last year, but the screening at the Yellowstone Art Museum, at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 5, will be the first in Montana.
Kernan said he is a big fan of the YAM, which he makes a point of visiting on his trips to the Crow Reservation, and it was he who suggested the screening to museum Director Robyn Peterson.
Unfortunately, he said, he will be at a month-long writers retreat and won’t be able to appear at the screening, but he hopes to be able to drop in via Skype and answer questions after the film is shown.