Standing Rock documentary shows film can give voice to the powerless
In November, documentarian Josh Fox uploaded a short video to Facebook of Floris White Bull, who had just been released from jail. Wrapped in a blanket under a dark sky, she tearfully recounted what she witnessed at a standoff between police and activists over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
"The images are burned into my mind right now of the sounds of my people screaming in horror, our young people shot off those horses with those rubber bullets," she tells the camera. "We're not violent criminals, and we're not bad people. We're not murderers, and we're not rapists, we're not drug dealers -- just everyday people that want a better life for our children."
The video, which splices her interview with footage of police in riot gear beating and hosing down activists, had 30 million views within a couple days. The thousands of comments were nearly all variations on a theme of compassion for the Native Americans protesting the pipeline under the Missouri River, which is the source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux, not to mention millions of other Americans.
That two-minute clip was the seed for the documentary "Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock," which Fox co-directed with Myron Dewey and James Spione.
The documentary stands out because there's a clear sense that Fox, who is white, didn't just parachute in and tell this story through his eyes. It's an example of how filmmakers are taking steps toward more-inclusive storytelling.
Not only did Fox collaborate with Native Americans on the film, he also incorporated footage from livestreams, which have become a democratizing force, helpingmarginalized groups to get their messages seen.
Facebook Live videos have broadcast the reality of police officers shooting unarmed black men, such as Philando Castile in Minnesota. Similarly, many activists at Standing Rock were uploading videos in real time, among them Dewey, a Native American filmmaker who prolifically captured what was happening on the ground. He filmed Morton County police firing rubber bullets and water cannons at activists in freezing temperatures, and millions of people watched.
"It was the online viral video outlets that really scooped everybody else," Fox said of Standing Rock. "Often, when the mainstream media came, the response was pathetic and their stories were uninformed and they hadn't taken the time to really understand what was happening."
White Bull, who co-wrote the script for "Awake," opens the movie with a lyrical and elegiac narration as she talks about the prophecy of a black snake and the young people who came together to defeat it. During a phone interview, she discussed the importance of being able to tell her own story. She reminisced about her father, another activist, who would appeal to journalists to help him shed light on injustices. But the outcome wasn't always empowering because his message was reduced to sound bites.
"Any time that you do interviews, they're always subject to being cut into the story that (journalists) want to tell," she said. "It's important to be able to tell your own story, and why it's important to you, and why other people should care about it."
Despite still lagging when it comes to diversity behind the camera, the movie industry has grown more inclusive of marginalized groups in recent years. For instance, four documentaries from black directors were nominated for Oscars earlier this year, including Ezra Edelman's "O.J.: Made in America," which won.
Fox brought a deep understanding of pipelines to his movie -- the Oscar-nominated director of "Gasland" has been making films critical of the oil and gas industry for the past decade. But "Awake" comes across as a partnership with the Native American activists on screen. They weren't just the stars of a story he was telling.
The doc premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Earth Day, April 22, the same day it streams online for viewers willing to donate at least a dollar to the Indigenous Media Fund. Given the film's perspective, it's no surprise that it's a call to action, urging viewers to join the protest -- and not just through Facebook likes. The pipeline was completed and is nearly operational, but tribes are still suing to try to halt the project.
"Everyone involved in this project is in one way or another an activist," Fox said, but he doesn't see that as presenting a skewed story so much as leveling the playing field. "We have a perspective, and that perspective makes it more true and not less true. Right now, the corporate media is so blind to the reality that their stories skew toward the oil companies and the big banks without them even trying, so you have to kind of correct that myopia."
The fact that the film is told from the point of view of the self-proclaimed "water protectors" means that it may only reach a specific audience, but that's OK with White Bull.
"I'm not concerned about trying to change somebody's mind who believes only in the almighty dollar and doesn't believe in leaving something for their children," she said. "I'm trying to help people realize that they have power even when they feel powerless."