SXSW 2022: ‘The Unknown Country’ is an Exploration on Identity

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The Unknown Country - But Why Tho

Directed and Written by , the film’s story is from Lily Gladstone, Maltz, Vanara Taing, Lainey Bearkiller Shangreaux. Additionally, The Unknown Country stars Gladstone, Raymond Lee, Shangreaux, Richard Ray Whitman, Devin Shangreaux, Jasmine “Jazzy” Bearkiller Shangreaux, Pam Richter, Dale Leander Toller, Florence R. Perrin, and Teresa Boyd. Having premiered at SXSW 2022, the film’s exploration of identity through grief is heavy.

In The Unknown Country, an invitation to reunite with her estranged Oglala Lakota family launches a grieving young woman on an unexpected road trip from the Midwest toward the Texas-Mexico border. At a perfectly paced one hour and 25-minutes, Tana is alone in her journey to an unknown destination. Tana navigates the complex, post-2016 election social climate, and a natural landscape that becomes increasingly surreal. Along the way, she bonds with unexpected people that are as much a part of the landscape as the mountains and roads.

The strength of The Unknown Country comes from its ability to use atmosphere to change the emotions Tana’s solitude elicits.  At times there is an ease to the silence, a space to collect who she is on her own. At other times, Tana exudes a solitary vulnerability when surrounded by people that should feel like home. Beyond this though, there is also a sharp edge that cuts the calm because Tana is a woman traveling alone. Traveling across states, familiar faces and strangers shape her journey as she grapples with the pain of her recent loss of her grandmother but more importantly helps her understand her place in the world.

There is an almost documentary quality to The Unknown Country. The moments of connection feel authentic, and Maltz’s directorial eye gives the audience the perspective of a fly on the wall. In every moment, the performances don’t feel like they’re being executed for the camera, instead, every scene feels like you’re watching from within the community on screen. Early on in the film, we see Tana and her family at a bar. They’re sharing stories and standing around the table and the camera is situated in the spaces between faces, like you’re standing there with them, taking it all in. Additionally, there are small moments of narration that offer glimpses into the lives of some of the people that Tana meets along the way. This is a smart choice that adds depth to the landscape we Tana explore, to the characters and the places.

I’m Native and I’m detached from my biological father’s tribe and my grandmother’s as well. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to connect and find out where I fit. I know that I’m Kickapoo but I don’t know much else since my grandmother has been dead for years and I never knew my bio-dad, at least not in a substantial way. This is why The Unknown Country hits so extremely hard.

The Unknown Country is about healing and it’s about finding yourself through other people and nurturing connections to find where you belong. There are small moments in the film that made me tear up, and I don’t necessarily know why. Maltz captures the intimacy of connecting in a way I can’t say I’ve seen on film in some time. The love and the sadness meld to create a path forward towards finding solace in the midst of grief. As our lead, Lily Gladstone can show a variety of emotions with little words, using her face and body to show her vulnerability, her uncomfortable state, and ultimately show where her heart is. In the film’s final act we see Tana becoming one with grandma in a way that feels more than just remembering, but living in unison with her. Walking where she walked, feeling the world the same way she did. It’s beautiful and somehow despite Tana being alone in the landscape of a national park, it doesn’t feel like she’s by herself.

The Unknown Country is an exploration of identity through grief, an intimate look at how we see ourselves in relation to others, and the love that pulls us along. The film is about healing and hope in the spaces that we’re unsure of and honoring those who are no longer here with us. The Unknown Country feels whole.

The Unknown Country premiered at SXSW 2022 International Film Festival.


The Unknown Country
  • 7/10
    Rating - 7/10
7/10

TL;DR

The Unknown Country is an exploration of identity through grief, an intimate look at how we see ourselves in relation to others, and the love that pulls us along. The film is about healing and hope in the spaces that we’re unsure of and honoring those who are no longer here with us. The Unknown Country feels whole.