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Crow Indian, Anti-Apartheid Struggles Focus of Documentaries

February 16, 1988|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the UCLA Film and Television Archive's Contemporary Documentary Series continues tonight at 8 in UCLA's Melnitz Theater with two more outstanding works, "Contrary Warriors: A Film of the Crow Tribe" (1985), made by Connie Poten, Pamela Roberts and Beth Ferris, and Sharon I. Sopher's Oscar-nominated "Witness to Apartheid" (1986).

As enlightening as it is moving, "Contrary Warriors" surveys the Crow Indians' century-long struggle for survival, focusing on remarkable tribal leader Robert Yellowtail, who's nearing the century mark himself.

"Contrary Warriors" is more than the familiar litany of the white man's bad faith, oppression and exploitation of Native Americans: It outlines how, under the well-educated and articulate Yellowtail's strong leadership, the tribe has actually won a few rounds in the long fight for justice and equality.

Over the decades the Crows have reclaimed their once-banned language and culture and have gradually achieved unity within their various tribes, and they draw strength from their enduring sense of extended family. The two great, related challenges facing them are reclamation of lost lands and combating a 75% unemployment problem that drives many off the reservation in southeastern Montana.

For all its history and statistics, "Contemporary Warriors" is a warm and personal record of a way of life and of several remarkable individuals, starting with the indomitable Yellowtail and his shrewd, witty wife Dorothy.

To see "Witness to Apartheid" (filmed in secret in 1985 during the state of emergency in South Africa) a second time is to realize that its real horror lies not so much in its tragically familiar parade of black victims of white torture and brutality but in what its man-on-the-street interviews reveal. The several whites Sopher interviews at random take a terrifying head-in-the-sand attitude toward what's happening to South Africa's blacks; they just don't want to know what's going on, and one man goes so far as to say that blacks are "quite happy" in their townships. "Witness to Apartheid" is as urgent as it is courageous. (213) 825-2581.

This week's Salute to Newsreel offerings (screening Thursday at Melnitz beginning at 5:30 p.m.) spotlight the work of Christine Choy and include a program of anti-Vietnam War documentaries that testify to the tragic folly of that struggle and the consciousness it raised in America. Frankly, the war films are wearying in their familiarity, but Choy's "From Spikes to Spindles," although repetitive, offers a fresh, vital survey of the Chinese-American experience spanning more than a century to an increasingly activist present.

Two other Choy films were unavailable for preview: "Inside Women Inside" (with Cynthia Maurizio), a 1978 expose on conditions in women's prisons, and "Bittersweet Survival" (with Orinne J. T. Takagi), a 1982 study of Southeast Asian refugees.

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