The Taking became an absolute top of the list watch for the London Film Festival due to the past work of documentarian Alexandre O. Philippe. His work with the fantastic documentary Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist should have audiences alert to his talents and a sure fire bet to please.
Filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe explores the affinity the audiences and filmmakers have with the location of Monument Valley while also investigating how this affinity had affected those who lived on the land long before filmmakers like John Ford came with Stagecoach.
There is a strong chance that you will have never heard of the location Monument Valley or know exactly where it is in the South West of the United States. But there is almost a guarantee that you have seen it on a screen at least once. Monument Valley is the centrepiece location to some of the most well known Westerns. Even if you are not an avid Western watcher the gorgeous area has come up in films such as Forrest Gump, Mission Impossible 2 (that opening scene), to even Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It is a well-used location, and it has more importance than we could imagine.
The primarily focus of The Taken placed on John Ford is an obvious but important one for Philippe to take here; his work is synonymous with the area, in fact other than using the location he hired many Navajo citizens to act in his films. In addition, we hear from film academics how he was lured to the area because of his family home of Connemara in Ireland, another area filled with gorgeous natural landmarks. Unfortunately, though it is hard to judge whether or not if this is true as when we here from the man himself in archival interviews. He purposely appears nonplussed to give any meaningful answers.
So, is this opinion just provided by these academics to reason for his continued use of the area, or did he simply see a great location and decide to use it as often as he could? When we come to the Navajo talking about the abuse of their territory, a political and ethical narrative is formed, and the documentary begins to open up from what was a cinematic study of Monument Valley to a discussion of appropriation of said region. How white people came to this land and tried to make it their own and, in fact, through media, made the indigenous people of Monument Valley come across as the villains of the piece.
For the most part, Westerns have showcased the daring and bravery of white men coming through the desert land to get to the riches of the West, conquering all before them while a stunning landscape heralds their achievements as they pass by. As we get this opinion and discussion you actively become more engaged with the documentary on a whole, as it ventures down a path not well trodden. Still, these moments feel too fleeting, especially when it comes back around to its central focus of Ford and his supposed relationship with the Valley.
More focus should be placed on this appropriation and misguided viewpoint that the Valley is where American’s venture towards as a tourist attraction because they almost believe that what they saw in those Westerns were true and that, of course, those brace souls crossing the land were innocent. Of course, we know otherwise now, but for some, that still may ring true, which is disappointing, but seeing the influence media has, not unexpected.
The idea of myths and leaning on those truths ring through The Taking, with the Navajo almost disregarded from their land once more. Examples of what happened on shoots there disturb you due to the level of disrespect shown. Certainly nowadays productions would not get away with leaving cement tracks used for dolly shots and parts of the sets strewn to waste away. There would be an uproar, yet it happened and you have to imagine it was done so because of who owned the land. The disrespect knows no bounds either, for example, even when indigenous people are in these Westerns and usually they are the Navajo, half of the time, they are not even from the characterised as correct nation, with Cherokee used to replace them because directors want to set their film in places like Texas, which for those who do not know is not where Monument Valley is located.
This level of disrespect doesn’t go unnoticed; with the Navajo marginalised by studios, there is a struggle to reclaim their land as their own instead of that of the adventurous white man. At times this discussion falls wayward with some unfortunate lines that make little sense, but the point is clear from the Navajo side, and Philippe makes sure to have their voices heard. However, that continued focus on Ford is telling, and while interesting, there could have been more to this piece than just Ford’s cinematic themed relationship with the area.
If there are issues with The Taking, it is the fact that we do not know who is giving us these observations at the time. We find out during the credits who these people are, but there is an effort to link the voice to the name. You get the impression however, that this was Philippe’s intent the entire time, to have us listen, but remain focused on the imagery. By removing the standard talking head and even lower third information, we focus on the films and how they portray the Valley. Pulling us into the mythos and majestic appeal of it all. Equally, the attempt to connect to Monument Valley to the recent Capitol Hill attacks is a stretch at best. There is no need for that connection, really, and it is a shame that it is mentioned as it almost removes the importance of the dialogue that came before it.
Philippe’s decision to be more academic in this documentary is an interesting one. The focus on keeping almost all of the footage of scenes from films and television of Monument Valley causes it to come across as a little drier than you would anticipate. Perhaps this is why it runs and a quick 76 minutes. Yet with The Taking, he still has his audience ask themselves some questions, how will they view Monument Valley when they see it come onto their screen? Or, in truth, any landscape that has been overused by cinema.
While we have a complicated relationship with the use of Monument Valley and hope for a story more focused on those who reside or did reside there, Philippe makes sure that we are still astounded by it. Whether we like it or not, Monument Valley is important to Western cinema and The Taken makes sure to open us up to the meaning of that fact.
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