Stranded in Bunker Hill: The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961)

The Exiles 1

“Ah, Los Angeles! Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there’s a God in heaven.” ― John Fante, Ask the Dust

Arturo Bandini’s words about the city of angels kept echoing in my head while watching Kent Mackenzie eerie yet beautiful portrait of Los Angeles in The Exiles. While I never set foot there, there is something that keeps drawing me to that city. It’s a passion that started with the books of Fante and Bukoskwi and developed over the years with films such as Chinatown, Jackie Brown, Mulholland Drive, The Big Lebowski and more recently Nightcrawler.

Mackenzie’s hidden gem caught me off guard, bringing me back to the streets of Bunker Hill that I first discovered in Ask the Dust and forcing me to ask myself how much I really knew about Los Angeles, its people and its history. Shot over the course of three years in the late 1950s, The Exiles was screened in a few film festivals in 1961, but was never distributed and quickly disappeared for more than fifty years. The enthralling story of a group of young Native American’s night out in downtown L.A. eventually resurfaced in 2003, when Thom Andersen included excerpts from the surviving 16mm copy in his compilation film Los Angeles Plays Itself. The film was then restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and released on DVD by Milestone.

Mackenzie first established his long lasting connection with Bunker Hill and its residents in 1956, when he directed a short film on the neighbourhood as part of his studies at the University of Southern California. At the time many young Native Americans and entire families had moved to Los Angeles from the reservations following the 1952 government sponsored Urban Indian Relocation Program. The government’s promises of housing and jobs were in many cases not maintained and the new Bunker Hill residents soon found themselves without jobs and forced to share run-down apartments.

The Exiles 2

The restoration of the film from obscurity to its original 35mm speaks to a film that manages to combine narrative documentary and neorealist approach with Hollywood noir aesthetics in a unique way. The actors of The Exiles are all non-professionals, acquaintances or friends of the director, who accepted to re-enact their own life-stories in front of the camera and over the course of a night (that in reality lasted over three years of shooting). As we watch the characters hop from one bar to another, gamble, dance, fight and get wasted their recorded voiceovers tell stories of loss, disenfranchisement and love. By choosing to focus on a small group of characters and to structure the film around a series of short events rather than an overaching narrative, Mackenzie gives us an enthralling portrait of the lives and experiences of Yvonne, Homer and Tommy and of their relations with Los Angeles.

Where the film perhaps fails is in accounting for the experience of all Native Americans that relocated to the city in those years, but I don’t think that this was ever Mackenzie’s intention in shooting the film. The Exiles is a personal and realistic portrait of the hopes and downfalls of three young exiles stranded in Los Angeles. Is a film that encapsulates the time in which it was shot and provides us with a glimpse into a city that is no more and into the lives of the people that lived in the city that Fante called a “sad flower in the sand”.

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