A Debt Repaid to an Extraordinary Man and Filmmaker: Kent Mackenzie’s “The Exiles”

I have a debt to repay.

In 1969, my senior year at South Hills High School in West Covina, California, I was introduced to a filmmaker named Kent Mackenzie. He was interviewing kids at my high school for a feature documentary about the struggles of being an adolescent. He asked me to be in it, but I was going off to college and couldn’t do it.

But Kent saw I was fascinated by film and he invited me to see his studio. If my memory serves me right, he worked out of Churchill Films in LA.  He  gave me a master class, and then showed me a film that he had made while a student at USC. It was called The Exiles. After that, he had me down a few more times and introduced me to the world of documentary film.  I have never made films, but I have lived and breathed and studied them for years.

It was one of the most unselfish things anyone has ever done for me. He shared his wisdom, but what remains unforgettable was his love for his craft. 

I never saw him again. Story over.

No, story not over. Not by a long shot.

Kent died, much too young, several years later.  But I was haunted by the film’s characters for years — poor Native Americans living in the small Los Angeles enclave of Bunker Hill who had come from impoverished reservations in the late 1950s. These were people neither here nor there, people at the margins of a society that didn’t even want to know what to do with exiles.  And LA was a city happily ridding itself of any unsightly enclaves it could find.   Kent’s exiles would be gone in several years.  But not before he told their story.

The Exiles is a brilliant combination of spontaneous verité and staged scenes.  It is rendered in a black and white film that had more colors and hues and shadows than Technicolor. What I didn’t know then was that this guy who had been so warm and helpful was a master cinematographer. And that he filmed it with a slew of other master cinematographers.

Almost 40 years pass.

And then, in 2003, Thom Andersen’s wonderful documentary “Los Angeles Plays Itself” was released. It included scenes from The Exiles.  Milestone Films, supported by producers Sherman Alexie and Charles Burnett (filmmaker of another quiet classic, Killer of Sheep), and in cooperation with USC’s film archivist Valarie Schwan, brought the film to preservationist Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

The result was that the restored version of The Exiles was released this past July to worldwide acclaim. Milestone Films is itself a gift to the film community, and its founders Dennis Doros and Amy Heller were also responsible for the release of Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. (Definitely check out their catalogue.)

The critical reaction was immediate:

The restoration and long-delayed commercial release of ‘THE EXILES,’ a 1961 film about a largely forgotten corner of that deceptively bright city, is nothing less than a welcome act of defiant remembrance… A beautifully photographed slice of down-and-almost-out life, a near-heavenly vision of a near-hell that Mr. Mackenzie situated at the juncture of nonfiction and fiction. He tapped into the despair of this obscured world while also making room for the poetry and derelict beauty of its dilapidated buildings, neon signs, peeling walls and downcast faces.”

—MANOHLA DARGIS, NEW YORK TIMES

“‘THE EXILES’ surely deserves a place in the history of American independents alongside  John Cassavettes’  ‘Shadows,’  but its cautious depiction of a situation rarely reported even today gives it a permanence that has held up over the decades.”

INDIEWIRE

In later years, film and literature would be packed with the themes of exile, of immigration, of emigration, of being lost in someone else’s world. But this was a time in Southern Calfornia when none of that messiness would be allowed to get in the way of a “Leave It To Beaver” and “Wonder Years” world. How could it when we were so busy tearing down the Chicano neighborhood of Chavez Ravine to build a baseball stadium?  

When suburbia was still ringed by shanty towns housing poor immigrant farm workers.  When the only ethnic celebrated in textbooks was Fr. Junipero Serra, whose claim to fame was the Calfornia missions, the conversion of thousands of Native Americans, and the introduction of disease and repressive policies responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans.

Out of sight, out of mind. The Southern California of Art Linkletter’s House Party couldn’t have cared less.

But now we can see the world Kent saw when others wouldn’t.

I hope you do.

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5 thoughts on “A Debt Repaid to an Extraordinary Man and Filmmaker: Kent Mackenzie’s “The Exiles”

  1. Dear Steve,

    Hello there. We’ve never met. I’m Kent’s oldest daughter. I was in elementary school when my father made “Saturday Morning.”

    When I was in Junior High he came to my English class and showed a couple of the shorts that were produced for educational purposes from the material shot for “Saturday Morning.” And led a discussion based on the films.

    Thank you for your statements about my Dad/Kent. I have the utmost of respect for my father’s talent as a film-maker. Though he was a Producer, Director and writer.

    He obviously made excellent choices re: the other film-makers he collaborated with on all his films.

    In the case of “The Exiles”: Eric Daarstad, John Morrill and Bob Kaufman are the principal cinematographers.

    Kent also took still photographs. However, my firm belief is that he was a film-maker. And as with many artists, the medium choose him. His passion,dedication and integrity when it came to his work is beyond reproach.

    I realize there are those who would doubt my objectivity. However, trust me: my father taught me to be critical artistically ,whatever my relationship to the artist.

    I would love to talk to you if you wouldn’t mind.

    My father and I were very close, more so when I was in my late teens and early 20’s.

    I’m sure you can imagine given his absolute commitment and passion towards his work that I am/was aware even as a small child, that when he worked he wasn’t the man I knew as Daddy.

    I’ve left you my e-mail address.

    I would love to hear from you.

    And again thank you for your comments. My father died way too young and made far too few films.

    Looking forward to hearing from you.
    Diane Mackenzie

    • In 1963, Marlon Brando brought Kent Mackenzie and his film crew to the Ute Reservation at Fr. Duchesne, UT, for the August 1963 annual meeting of the National Indian Youth Council. Considerable filming was done. Then in early March 1964, Kent’s crew rejoined us in Olympia with Marlon for filming the Brando-NIYC protest activities at the state Capitol, sandwiched between fishing activities on the Puyallup and Quillayute Rivers (March 1,2,3, 1964l), possibly some at Franks Landing on the Nisqually River. [“The Exiles” was shown to NIYC at Ft. Duchesne.] NIYC affectionately had named (or continued the name) “Blue Mountain” for one of the camera men (cinematographer) – which may have been Erik Daarstad (I’m presuming Nordic features in guessing now).

      I did have some limited correspondence with Kent Mackenzie in subsequent 60’s years.

      I’m primarily interested in what became of the film shot in Utah and Washington. Did Kent maintain any possessory control? Was it handed over to Marlon? Was the film processed further – and by whom or what company?
      The NIYC is approaching its 50th anniversary in 2011. And, if the 1963 and 1964 film still exists, there is great interest in this area for recovering it.

      The Brando arrest on Puyallup was shot from shore and there is some other film sources for that. However, Kent Mackenzie’s camera was in a boat on the Quillayute and there were some moments that would still be of great historical significance to the Quileute Tribe at LaPush WA – particularly of Chairman Fred ‘Woody’ Woodruff speeding up the river, standing in the bow of his boat, to approach those of us fishing and filming from the other boats. [The Quileute are the Indian Tribe that are basis for the “Twilight” film series of current popularity.]

      I am hopeful that Kent’s daughter Diane or cameramen Daarstad, Morrill or Kaufman might have some information for tracking down whatever happened to the Mackenzie/Brando film remains, if any, from 1963 and 1964.

      Any information or response would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: The Exiles, and Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill | Sad or Happy Today?

  3. Enjoyed your recollection about Mr. Mackenzie as I use to call him. I was a 11 year old little girl when he chosed my parents and my 8 brothers and sisters to make a movie about our life with our Dad, A Skill For Molina.
    It was an experience I will remember especially the crewl I still remember the experience we all had as poor project kids being able to swim in a hotel pool for the very first time. Mr. Mackenzie allowed us to go to his hotel room and go swimming. My mom would feed the crew and all our family tortillas and beans. Mr. Mackenzie was so impressed with my Mom’s tortilla’s that he made sure there was a shot of her making them. But I am glad that he edited out the part where he caught us kids stealing a tortilla from out Mom when one of us would distract her. And yes, I am of Native American ancestry. My grandma was half Apache raised in the Guadalupe Mts. of Texas.
    My mom has the original film that Mr. Mackenzie gave a copy of. Marilyn T. Rutz

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