“As an Indigenous, Two-Spirit youth, the most controversial act I ever committed was being myself,” says Sherenté Mishitashin in Being Thunder. The film tells the story of this young Two-Spirited member of the Narragansett Tribal Nation who confronts stereotypes, overcomes discrimination, and dances to the beat of his own drum. (Sherenté accepts usage of all pronouns, but this review uses he/him to maintain consistency with his bio.) Directed by French filmmaker Stéphanie Lamorré, Being Thunder observes as Sherenté grows from being an outsider in his Rhode Island tribe to becoming recognized as a role model for both his tribe and youths worldwide. This intimate character underscores the power of elevating voices who inspire us to open our minds.
Sherenté largely tells his story through Narragansett dance. He’s a pow wow pro, long a champ at community gatherings. However, when Sherenté appears in full regalia for the fancy shawl dance—traditionally reserved for female dancers—the tribe responds with surprise and support in equal measures. Being Thunder captures the quiet strength of the dancer, as Sherenté doesn’t falter in the circle. Instead, he makes the fancy shawl dance a proud assertion of Two-Spiritedness by adorning his outfit with the colours of the rainbow, transforming his regalia into a Narragansett Pride flag. The performance celebrates tradition with a contemporary sensibility.
The film notes the community’s shaky response to Sherenté’s act of asserting an identity that is both male and female. One dance contest sees Sherenté land in a non-controversial third place, while another sees him outright eliminated without any recourse to make his case. While many of the tribal elders preach openness, humility, and love, Sherenté encounters considerable prejudice in his own tribe. The film demonstrates how even communities that have faced centuries of systemic oppression can have closed minds and struggle to embrace outsiders.
Lamorré’s portrait, however, generally favours the family members and tribal elders who champion Sherenté’s strength. Powerful conversations with his elders inspire Sherenté to adopt the resilience that the Narragansett tribe displayed in the face of colonization, enduring over 400 years of violent oppression. The film observes community gatherings where Sherenté is invited to share his story and discuss the power of being Two-Spirited, embracing the spiritual maturity that comes with identifying as both male and female. Shooting the film solo, Lamorré gains laudable access to Sherenté and his family and creates an intimate portrait. Admittedly, the bare bones scale of the production can be a hindrance, especially as concerns the film’s audio, and Lamorré makes some odd aesthetic choices, like going in for seemingly random close-ups on Sherenté’s ears or eyes during interviews or verité sequences that evoke jittery mumblecore.
The subject matter and character, however, are the film’s strengths and Lamorré knows this. She steps back as a respectful observer. Being Thunder is a welcome and insightful portrait of Two-Spiritedness that uses Sherenté’s openness and resilience to explore a facet of both the rainbow and Indigenous culture that remains under-examined in film and media. Sherenté provides a worthy role model for queer youths. Expect to see more of this strong leader soon.
Being Thunder screens at Toronto’s Inside Out LGBTQ Film Festival May 27 to June 6.