Modernizing 'The Exiles' experience in Los Angeles

Photo by Pamela J. Peters at

Pamela J. Peters is a photographer who grew up on the Navajo reservation, born to the Red Running into the Water clan and born for the Red Bottom People clan. She came to Los Angeles at the age of 17 and while at UCLA saw Kent Mackenzie's restored 1961 film, The Exiles, about one night in the life of young Native American men and women from the Southwest who were living in downtown LA's doomed Bunker Hill neighborhood. Now she has produced images and film that Lisa Napoli at KCRW calls "a modern riff on The Exiles." The photos are on display this weekend at the 118 Winston gallery downtown.

Peters and Napoli talk on the radio: audio.

By the way: "The Exiles" has some of the coolest film footage of 1950s downtown you will ever see. Here's the trailer for the recent restoration:

Mackenzie's original film was restored and finished with the support of the USC Moving Image Archive, UCLA Film & Television Archive, The National Film Preservation Foundation, and Milestone Films. Here's a synopsis from the film's website:

Based entirely on interviews with the participants and their friends, the film follows a group of exiles — transplants from Southwest reservations — as they flirt, drink, party, fight, and dance.

Filmmaker Kent Mackenzie first conceived of The Exiles during the making of his short film Bunker Hill—1956 while a student at the University of Southern California. In July 1957, Mackenzie began to hang around with some of the young Indians in downtown Los Angeles. After a couple of months, he broached the subject of making a film that would present a realistic portrayal of Indian life in the community.

Mackenzie spent long hours making friends and earning the confidence of these Indians who finally agreed to re—enact a scenes from their lives for this picture. All of the actors, some of whom were recruited on the spur of the moment during the shooting, play themselves in the film.

The Exiles was directed and photographed by a group of young filmmakers — Mackenzie's college mates, fellow employees, and friends holding down a variety of day—to—day jobs in the motion picture industry. Much of the picture was shot on "short ends," the leftovers of 1,000—foot rolls (varying from 100 to 300 feet of stock) discarded by major film producers.

In collaboration with cinematographers John Morrill, Erik Daarstad, and Robert Kaufman, the shooting of The Exiles began in January 1958 and the first trial composite print was privately screened in April 1961. Premiering in the Venice Film Festival that year, the film received acclaim from many critics but tragically never found commercial distribution.

It was Thom Andersen's compilation documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself which kicked off the rediscovery of this lost masterwork. Andersen contacted the daughters of Mackenzie to receive permission to use footage to illustrate the lost neighborhood of Bunker Hill. Although the original negative and fine—grain (interpositive) existed for the film, it was decided that a theatrical distribution of the film could put the materials at risk. So Milestone, in cooperation with USC's film archivist Valarie Schwan, brought the film to preservationist Ross Lipman and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Previously on LA Observed:
Bunker Hill and Downtown in 1961: 'The Exiles'
Weekend viewing: Bunker Hill, 1956 *
Bunker Hill video deleted from Vimeo *
Watching 'Los Angeles Plays Itself' with Thom Anderson

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