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Native Nativity?

"Christmas in the Clouds" explores the sense of humor of the first Americans.

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If someone raises an eyebrow during Kate Montgomery's film starring Native Americans, in which a Jeep Cherokee is given away as a prize at a bingo game, she would probably be pleased. Montgomery, the director of the romantic comedy "Christmas in the Clouds," says the scene is supposed to play for a laugh. But if someone gets offended, Montgomery doesn't seem too worried. She says she has purposefully tried to subvert common notions about Native Americans with her movie. If it shows them in a light not everyone is comfortable with, she says, it also shows them in a way they often like to think of themselves.

"Christmas in the Clouds" debuts in Richmond Friday, Dec. 1, at 6 p.m., at the Byrd Theatre, during a benefit for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond's Refugee and Immigration Services, which assists the city's immigrants with educational and outreach programs. Montgomery's sister-in-law works at the agency, and her brother is Style jazz critic Peter McElhinney, so that's how the film came to be shown in Richmond.

In most movies, Montgomery says from her home in San Francisco, "Native Americans are either [portrayed as] the soothsayer medicine man or the drunk troublemaker." In "Christmas in the Clouds," they are yuppies, or the Native equivalent. The main character, Ray Clouds on Fire (Timothy Vahle), is the manager of an upscale resort lodge owned by his tribe who is determined to get a good review from a secret critic arriving in town while falling in love with one of his lodge guests. The movie also stars Graham Greene of "Dances With Wolves" fame as a vegetarian chef who mourns the passing of each turkey.

"There's a Native take on things that I find hilarious," says Montgomery, taking note of the group's unique sense of humor. Movies, she says, "always played on these tragic tales of woe, always with an accompanying guilt trip. There's a risk of self-pity." The danger, she says, is that though such movies mean well, the Native American sees himself or herself portrayed most of all as a loser.

Hollywood likes it that way. It sells tickets. Montgomery, who has close ties to the Native American community, says she had a hard time finding funding and distribution for her pet project. First of all, she says, "If you want a slam dunk, don't go for a family-friendly romantic comedy." People she brought the script to thought that she was crazy, that only one kind of Native American story sold, and that was the tragic one. Montgomery points to the development of "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" for HBO as an example.

Montgomery's film started premiering at festivals years before its initial theatrical release in 2005. (It's now on DVD and available at Blockbuster.)It's been a long process from idea to audience winner. Even the Jeep Cherokee was a hurdle. Montgomery actually cleared the gag with the Cherokee Nation beforehand. The tribal members didn't mind. "There's a tremendous sense of humor there," she says. S

"Christmas in the Clouds" is showing at the Byrd Theatre Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance by calling 355-4559, extension 15, or $15 at the door.

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