Neither one thing nor the other
Indigenous Americans' plight in uneasy blockbuster treatment
by Jake Roslin
We’ve a pretty bad reputation, us white Europeans, on colonial acquisition. Centuries of inhumanity, genocide and marginalisation of indigenous peoples reverberate today - not least in the Indian Reservations of the western USA.
Steven Lewis Simpson is an Aberdeen-born film-maker whose crowdfunded fiction-documentary hybrid Neither Wolf Nor Dog showed at the Belmont Filmhouse in June. It deals with the present-day repercussions of such inhu treatment to a tribe of native Americans in what we call South Dakota (in fact, Native Americans have no recognition of imposed state boundaries over their lands). The widescreen, near two-hour picture is nicely shot and has been generally well received by the public. However it is problematic, structurally and ethnocentrically.
Wily ninety-something Dan (played by first time actor David Bald Eagle) spent his life on Pine Ridge Lakota Indian Reservation. Before he dies, he wants to publish his life philosophies; currently a shoebox of scrawled proverbs and anecdotes. Through an improbable act of trickery, he strands Caucasian mid-west author Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) on the reservation until his teachings are transcribed and he made sure Nerburn gets the lie of the land - joined by fellow elder Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), the writer is forced on a road trip across the reservation. A conventional plot-arc of fall-out and reconciliation is imposed , and by the end, they all understand each other a bit better.
It’s with Nerburn that the “fact or fiction” problems begin. The character is based on the real Kent Nerburn, the author of the book on which the movie is based. Meanwhile the Native American actors are a mix of professionals and novices, who sometimes did and sometimes didn't improvise their own experiences into Simpson's dialogue. It becomes then difficult to know what’s authentic and what’s audience-pleasing. Notwithstanding, certain scenes remain effective. A drunk beggar is treated sympathetically by his elders to Nerburn’s surprise: the fault of his condition is the invader's introduction of alcohol. An almost silent scene at Wounded Knee, where victims of the 1890 massacre by the 7th Cavalry rest, is inevitably moving. But for most of the rest of the characters (Dan, Grover and Nerburn) play a tactical game which makes the film much longer than necessary. The cinematography is impressive, particularly as the whole picture was shot with a crew of two in a few weeks; but it does not suit the piece’s ‘cinéma vérité’ intent. is the important factual material is given an unnecessary fictionalisation, a sheen of spectacle.
The Belmont screening was accompanied by a Q&A session with the director, whose pride in his project and its screening statistics seemed to outweigh any anthropological concerns. This was lapped up by most of what were overwhelmingly white, apparently well-to-do, ‘Guardianista’ movie-goers. I felt Simpson would have a much harder time from a campus audience, or indeed in justifying this formulaic commercialisation to Native Americans themselves.
Nevertheless there are strong performances, particularly from Whitman (a veteran of the 1973 siege back at Wounded Knee, where racism and assimilatory plans were protested) and it can’t be denied that Simpson cares deeply about his subject: the project took many trust-garnering visits to the Lakota for instance. It's just that he seems more to want to make a blockbuster-style movie, with emotional plot points, a conflict-and-resolution arc and, especially in the opening scenes at home with the miscast Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney, an all-American ex-marine, implausible as a sensitive ethnographer) some truly clunky dialogue and mawkish plot devices.
Like all global victims of colonial oppression, the story of the Native Americans must be heard and reparations must be made but, as another dissenting voice at the Q&A asked, why was this film not made by a native? Indeed, there's a scene in the movie where Nerburn takes Dan and Grover into a museum where tribal artefacts (one of which turns out to have been stolen from an ancestor), are displayed for the edification of the white visitor: untouchable in their cabinets, out of context. This could be a metaphor for Neither Wolf Nor Dog itself - however sympathetically, it is a Westerner with Hollywood inclinations who controls the lens and the editing decisions behind which the true story of the Lakota somewhere lies.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog, Roaring Fire Films. On general release.