I thought I would dislike Stryker, the newest film by acclaimed indie filmmaker Noam Gonick. The story is relatively simple: a struggle between two street gangs, certainly not an overly original story line and one which hollywood trots out on a regular basis. From West Side Story to Boyz ‘N the Hood, we’ve all seen the formula. But this is certainly no West Side Story.
In the case of Stryker, the protagonists are Native on one side and Filipino on the other, and the struggle is for control of drugs and prostitution in a rundown Winnipeg neighbourhood. Well, that’s kind of new, but…
The fact that the Filipino gang is led by half-breed Native Omar (Ryan Black) is an interesting strategy by Gonick, perhaps to keep the film from seeming pedantic, perhaps to engage notions of shared oppression and cultural denial. Well, now you’ve piqued my interest…
But that’s not what really got me. Gonick’s storytelling is much more interesting as pure street culture drama, and that is its strength.
With an intriguing and complex array of characters, from transvestite prostitute Daisy Chain, to male stripper turned gang leader Omar, to the title character, Stryker, Gonick presents us with a world few of us know outside of news reports and television cop shows. It is a world most of us fear, and know almost nothing about. But the city is Winnipeg, and, as anyone from there will tell you, it is an undercurrent of the city that everyone is aware of.
Gonick sustains a fast and hard-edged pace throughout the film – not through frenetic action, but through sustained tension (sexual, social and cultural), as its young anti-hero experiences life in the ‘hood of a race- and class-divided city. Far from treating this world as some dystopic no man’s land, Gonick populates his “north end” with real people, poignant, occasionally tragic – the abused and the abusers – the lost and the cast-off.
Never one to allow his story to get mired in pedantry, though, Gonick rejoices in the joy and humour his characters live while never downplaying the desperation, poverty and violence of their daily lives. Because ultimately Stryker is a story of love, loyalty and damaged lives. It is a story of redemption, but not in the hollywood style. It is a postmodern fable, replete with existential angst, wrapped in the real world of violence, racism, triumph and humiliation, but with no overarching and simplistic moral at its conclusion.
There are no hollywood villains, no dark and present evil, just an all-too-common reality that forces communities into cycles of hopelessness, crime and social dysfunction. With his de rigeur Winnipeg references and inside jokes, and some lines that will leave Native viewers laughing out loud and non-Native viewers baffled, Stryker has its own particular aesthetic. As well, Gonick’s use of untrained actors in several key roles brings a vitality and credibility to the action.
He has elicited compelling (if occasionally strained) performances from the newcomers that lends an air of “street cred” to the film, which is most welcome in this genre. Especially noteworthy are Deena Fontaine as Indian Posse gang leader Mama Ceece and Kyle Henry as Stryker.
With the character of Stryker, Gonick has created a ubiquitous and disturbing presence. He is the young boy/man, fresh from the reserve, looking to belong, a silent witness to the lives spiralling around him.
With only one line in the film, Henry sets the tone and mood of every scene he is in, with just his face, his body language, his eyes.
Loss of innocence, exploitation and abuse are our greatest fears, but Gonick’s Stryker is no patsy, no beaten-down “skin.” His is the voiceless but not impotent rage, moral, but with no moral imperative, the film’s conscience and its most disquieting metaphor. He is beguiling and unsettling, destructive and compelling.
With Stryker, Gonick shows his range as a director, taking on a very difficult subject, and he handles the subject matter deftly, without resorting to clichés or stereotypes. He takes us on an evocative journey, one that may surprise and occasionally shock, but also one definitely worth the trip.
Undoubtedly there will be those who question Gonick’s choice of subject (how dare this white, Jewish, liberal, etc., etc.), and that is as it should be. It is obvious that Gonick has invested a great deal of time and energy in creating a narrative true to its source. The time he spent with actual Winnipeg street gangs including the Indian Posse serves to ground the film and to give it, and him, a verity quite often missing in films of this genre.
Cultural authority and appropriation are difficult and sensitive topics, but they need to be engaged if we are to get beyond simplistic notions of who is allowed to speak about what and tackle the real issues of representation and perception.
Gonick may have to deal with some of the fallout over issues like these, but they should not divert from the accomplishment that Stryker is. With this new film, Noam Gonick shows that he is one of this country’s most eclectic and provocative filmmakers.
Steven Loft is a Mohawk of the Six Nations. He is a curator, writer and media artist. He is currently the Director of the Urban Shaman Gallery, an Aboriginal art gallery in Winnipeg.
This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .