TORONTO - Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond remembers watching spaghetti westerns as a child in the basement of the local church in Waskaganish, in northern Quebec. As he rooted for the cowboys, he didn't realize that the actors playing the native Americans were white, or that they were supposed to represent aboriginal culture.
Then about seven years ago, while watching another western, it hit him: many white actors - from Charles Bronson and Elvis Presley to Burt Reynolds - have played aboriginals in Hollywood films. And the version of North American native they were playing was typically an offensive stereotype.
Thus began Diamond's journey in making the enlightening and humorous documentary "Reel Injun," about how Hollywood has shaped the image of native Americans. It opens Friday in Toronto and Vancouver.
"I started remembering the questions I'd get when I moved away from the community to go to school in the (Quebec) south - from students and adults alike - asking if we lived in teepees, if we rode horses or if we spoke 'Indian,' " Diamond said in a recent interview.
"I figured that's where those ideas came from. That's the only place you saw Indians living in teepees and riding horses and speaking 'Hollywood Indian,' which is apparently a whole language in itself."
Diamond, who lives in Montreal, hops in his beat-up "Rez car" at the start of the film to drive around Canada and the United States to examine the origins of cinema's "enduring love affair with the Injun."
Through interviews with activists, film critics, comics, historians and actors - including Winnipeg's Adam Beach and Clint Eastwood - Diamond outlines the evolution of native images in movies, from the silent era to contemporary times.
Classic westerns he explores include the 1924 silent feature "The Iron Horse" and 1941's "They Died With Their Boots On." He also looks at children's animated pieces that perpetuate stereotypes, including the Disney film "Pocahontas" and Looney Tunes cartoons.
"I always get embarrassed with some of the really bad filmmaking that's using all these stereotypes," said Diamond, whose other documentaries include 2004's "Heavy Metal: A Mining Disaster in Northern Quebec."
"There's one where every time the native character is about to deliver a line a flute starts to play, or if they're going to say something really profound, an eagle cries."
Hollywood started to dispel such stereotypes around the 1970s, he said, with films including "Little Big Man" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."
That trend continued with movies including "Once Were Warriors" and "Smoke Signals" that portray native people "as human beings," added Diamond.
Still, there's progress to be made, he added.
Nine-time Oscar nominee "Avatar," for instance, is like "Dances With Pocahontas in Space" with its depiction of animated Na'vi native characters, said Diamond.
"(For) the story, I saw something on the Internet saying they just took the synopsis from 'Pocahontas' and replaced all the names ... It's kind of lazy storytelling, I find."
Diamond said he's not knocking the technical brilliance of "Avatar," he just wishes that some of the millions of dollars put into the special effects had been spent on "developing a good story."
"They're basically eight-foot-tall, blue Indians with tails. That's pretty much what the story is ... I'd recommend 'Avatar' with a caveat: don't go for the story, just go to see it."
"Reel Injun" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and screened a month later at the ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival in the city.
It will make its U.S. debut next month at the South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas. Said Diamond: "It'll be interesting to see how it's received there in cowboy country."