“Mirror Man,” a 2022 horror short from Ginew Benton, has been gaining traction at film festivals across the country, and its Hamptons roots run deep…deep in the mass graves of old residential schools.
“Residential schools started with the idea of ’kill the Indian, save the man’, and it was about removing all of our children from our communities because we were practicing our traditional way of life,” says Benton. , a resident of the Hamptons. Director of Ojibway Heritage. “They knew within a generation if they could take all our children, cut our hair, beat us every time we spoke our language or practiced anything other than Christianity,” he continues, describing methods of assimilation forced. “There were children who had more willpower than that, and it was more often the children who were murdered.”
As a Native American, Benton had a lot of motivation to shine a light on the atrocities committed in American residential schools as a way to extinguish a sense of Native identity, a practice painfully similar to the situation in Ukraine today; however, a family connection to the subject proved too great a motivation to ignore.
“I really started thinking about my kookum (a term of affection for her maternal grandmother)…she was a residential school survivor,” he says. “And we say ‘survivor’ because they were the only schools with graveyards; we call them survivors because there are no graduates, and we recognize the horrible nightmares that happened in those residential schools for all the children.
With his late grandmother’s experience to share, Benton wrote the “Mirror Man” screenplay between 2018 and 2019, taking elements from various communities to form a “generalized true story” that would hopefully ring true. to all those who would have survived their story. The film’s narrative structure was also influenced by her grandmother.
“What it was like when she told her stories was like literally taking you by the hand and walking you through a haunted house… you go from room to room, and each room has a theme and a certain thing going on in this room, and you’re scared,” he explains. “I was like, ‘Maybe I want to do this movie which is literally how I felt when my grandma was talking about it. “”
To that end, “Mirror Man” begins by introducing its audience to the house manager of a renovated Hamptons boarding school who is frightened by a shadowy figure in the mirror and calls the police to inspect the potential burglary. The officer, an indigenous woman, is seen attempting to rush the roll call when her daughter stops her to insist that she wear a megis (cowrie) necklace meant to remind her of her spiritual culture. When she arrives, she hears the ghostly voices and footsteps of children as the man in the mirror opens his eyes to a montage of horrors from the school’s past.
Upon seeing his first cut of the film, his family advised him not to hold back the intensity of the imagery, if he really wanted to take responsibility for the story. “‘Say it all bro,’ is what they said,” Benton shares, adding that the finished film received a more touching reception. “When I put everything I wanted in there, my mom said, ‘Your kookum would be proud of you for telling his story. “”
“Mirror Man” was filmed at the Shinnecock-owned property on Sugar Loaf Hill, recently returned to the nation after a 30-year battle to protect the sacred graveyard beneath the property – a fitting place. It stars Susanne Bone, Dylan Carusona and Greg Punda.
A stark contrast to Benton’s 2020 sci-fi short “Looking Glass” – which was filmed by cinematographer Bryan Downey and starring Benton due to cast scheduling conflicts – “Mirror Man” was shot entirely by Benton on his iPhone 12. It allowed him to get particularly creative with the shots and camera movements he was now able to pull off (and it also landed him a job at LTV Studios, making iPhone documentaries about local communities and teaching students how to do the same).
“I wanted to try using techniques that I had known with the actual moving image. A lot of it is composition, tone, coloring, art direction and cinematography,” he says, adding that he much prefers being behind the camera. “I really wanted to take control of this film and lead other people who were motivated and also wanted to tell the story.”
Benton adds that presenting this Indigenous story in the form of a uniquely written and filmed horror film allows it to reach a wider audience than those who might watch a purely educational documentary on the subject. “I like to take something that’s deeply rooted in our traditional oral history and weave it into a more modern style of American cinema,” he says. “It’s a strategy to do something like a modern horror movie, but then slip into that historical precision, where it’s entertaining and people want to watch it because it’s engaging, but you slip into the lesson Of the history.”
“Mirror Man” is certainly reaching a wider audience on the film festival circuit. It is an Official Selection of the Latino & Native American Film Festival, Summer Finalist for Best Horror Film at the One Day Austin After Dark Film Festival, was a Nominee Finalist at the Niagara Falls International Short Festival, a won Best Short at NatiVisions Film Festival, won Best Short Horror at Tokyo Shorts, won Best Cell Phone Short at Miami International Science Fiction Festival (MiSciFi), and won the Russell Bates Award for Indigenous Science Fiction at MiSiFi, which Benton also won for “Looking Glass”.
Accepting his second win from the Russell Bates family, he humbly admitted he would rather present the award to someone new next year than win a third time. “I want more Indigenous people to create science fiction – to create our stories in new and exciting ways,” he shares.
As for his other awards and accolades, “they all mean exactly the same thing” to him. “Everything is a reflection of your progress and where you were at any particular time and place,” he says, though he admits, “When you get recognized by your peers, that would make good to anyone.”