It is no coincidence that when we are introduced to Sherenté Harris in the opening minutes of Being Thunder (★★★★☆, CRITIC’S PICK), it is at a healing ceremony.
The two-spirited member of the Narragansett tribe of what is now Rhode Island stands by as the story of their birth is recounted to the film crew — their eyes were said to be looking up, “already holding council with his creator,” a sign of a person who was already spiritually gifted from birth. “Sherenté walks this path not just for Sherenté, but for all the young people and the elders… that have had to live a hidden life.”
Director Stéphanie Lamorré does her subject a great service by opening her documentary at a ceremony where Sherenté is not only surrounded by love and support, his importance to his community is taken as a given.
The event seems to unfold almost in real-time, with few cuts or other directorial interventions. The viewer is welcomed into the event, but only to the extent that they are here to watch, listen, and learn.
These long, meditative shots and a persistent focus on uncut, unhurried conversations make Being Thunder a moving and intimate documentary.
Lamorré seems keen to let facets of her subject’s life and story appear to unfold naturally, with minimal intervention. Her detached, observational style allows Sherenté, 17 at the time of filming, to show us who they are on their own terms.
Sherenté dances at a pow-wow, performing the Fancy Shawl, a women’s dance taught to them by their mother after they came out to her as two-spirit. The dance is lovingly shot, capturing the passion and pride in Sherenté’s movements.
After the judging, in which Sherenté places third in their category, we are privy to a conversation implying that there has been some discontent around their participation in a women’s category. Sherenté is confident that they were only put in third place to placate them.
Briefly, we are given a window into the tension within Sherenté’s own community around gender roles, a colonial imposition far more recent in time than the honor accorded to two-spirit people since time immemorial.
That intra-community tension is a part of Sherenté’s life that is seen to affect them deeply, but Lamorré avoids the voyeuristic tone too often adopted by artists and scholars looking from the outside in. Sherenté, for their part, has harsher words for the oppression that comes from outside their community, recounting harrowing stories of family members who had been attacked and murdered in brazen hate crimes.
Sherenté’s own words allow us to feel the weight of oppression in their life, but their story is not one of constant pain, and here too Lamorré takes care to present their coming-of-age story with care and nuance.
We follow Sherenté through events as mundane as a day at school, as moving as their impassioned speech at the Rhode Island state house, and as intimate as the Narragansett wedding they attend. One scene celebrates their admission into Brown University, allowing us to share in the joy of their family and friends.
Being Thunder introduces Sherenté to us as someone with much to teach us, and spends the rest of its runtime proving its point. Far from allowing itself to get bogged down by its slow pacing, it does Sherenté a great service by letting their life unfold thoughtfully and unhurriedly on camera.
Being Thunder screens at Landmark’s E Street Cinema on Sunday, Oct. 23, at 4 p.m. ($15 at the door) and is available in the virtual festival until 11:59 p.m. Click here for more details.
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