Kent Mackenzie's recently restored “The Exiles,” from 1961, is a film unlike any you're likely to find today, and not just because the setting, Los Angeles' Bunker Hill neighborhood, no longer exists. The black and white production, a hybrid documentary and narrative film, follows a group of Native American residents as they, well, do what anyone else would among the decaying Victorian row houses.
A lot of time is spent in neighborhood bars, for example, the kinds of places where you wouldn't be surprised to find Charles Bukowski perched on the corner stool. The movie's narrative half demonstrates that getting beery and hitting on what were then known as chicks was no different 40 years ago, not even if you were a Native American cruising near Hollywood. The occasional voice-over provides some insight into what these people think about their day-to-day existence, but don't expect to learn too much more than a lot of the figures here because they were, probably owing to their circumstances, fairly confused.
The DVD market is glutted with documentaries these days, mostly of the exposAc variety, and mostly fairly predictable in content and form. “The Exiles” hails from a time when the term “independent” really meant something, an era both more innocent and more artistically free. The film recalls similar movies such as the Maysles brothers' “Salesman,” and “Killer of Sheep” by Charles Burnett, who serves, with Sherman Alexie, as one of the presenters on this two-disc DVD set.
Modern audiences could have some trouble with some of the film's idiosyncrasies, including the dubbed dialogue and some unbelievably amateur acting. But if you can get over that kind of stuff “The Exiles” is a welcome relief from the increasingly stodgy work that constitutes American independent cinema today.
Released by the small but respected restoration company Milestone Films, Mackenzie's film has been beautifully brought back into circulation and offered with a plethora of extras, including an insightful commentary track and clips from material related to the film, providing a well-rounded overview of its place in film history.