Sunday, 27 April 2014

PINE RIDGE - Review By Greg Klymkiw - HOT DOCS 2014 - The Hearts and Minds that soar above Wounded Knee - Blend of Direct Cinema with poetic dollops of Cinéma vérité, explores daily life of the Oglala Lakota Nation.

Ceremonial Dance in Pine Ridge
Pine Ridge (2013) *****
Dir. Anna Eborn

Review By Greg Klymkiw

South Dakota Dreaming
In 1992 I found myself travelling through South Dakota during the opening weekend of Michael Apted's Thunderheart, a fictional rendering of Incident at Oglala, his feature documentary released the same year. I saw the former title in Rapid City, South Dakota which is not far from the incidents depicted in both of the Apted pictures. My wife and I were in a packed movie theatre and it seemed like we were the only non-Native-Americans present. Starring Val Kilmer and Graham Greene, it reduced the horrific events on the Oglala Reservation to little more than a glorified feature length procedural, though as such, I recall it being reasonably well made and genuinely stirring. The reaction of the audience was far more interesting.

In fact, the buzz in the auditorium was palpable and though my response to the film in retrospect is tepid at best, I do recall my visceral feelings at that specific time and place as being highly influenced by an audience reacting on very emotional levels to fictionalized events that occurred in the very backyards of those in attendance. In particular, these were the sort of events seldom tackled by Hollywood in its 100+ years of the art form's history. Native Americans suffered the stereotypes of endless westerns which painted them as bloodthirsty "savages" who impeded the goals of "civilized" Americans and on the few occasions, "positive" portraits were attempted, they were oft-infused with the stereotype of the "noble savage" and/or focused upon the "negative" aspects of contemporary North American Native life. Movies are made by what's called a dream factory and, in fact, might well be the greatest gift to artistic expression.

As Chariots of Fire, The Mission, The Killing Fields and Local Hero producer David Puttnam says in his great book "Movies and Money":

" . . . from its earliest beginnings, [film's] real magic has been its ability to conjure up and sustain the dreams of ordinary men and women . . . the human race needs those dreams now, as much as at any time in its history."
The dreams Hollywood offered the Native Peoples of North America and others who have suffered the indignities of racism, ethnocentrism and exploitation have mostly been skewed as nightmares and certainly fly in the face of Puttnam's own output as a visionary producer whose work has focused respectively (in the aforementioned titles) upon issues as diverse as anti-semitism, colonization, genocide and the corporate rape of indigenous small communities. Puttnam adds that filmmakers are charged with creating work that must live beyond the ephemeral needs of industry and contribute, in no small measure to how we all can peer into a celluloid mirror and indeed reap the benefits of artistic expression and its relationship to our own lives. The line between that which helps and that which hinders is, however, thin indeed. To quote Puttnam:

"Stories and images are among the principal means by which human society has always transmitted its values and beliefs, from generation to generation and community to community. Movies, along with all the other activities driven by stories and the images and characters that flow from them, are now at the very heart of the way we run our economies and live our lives. If we fail to use them responsibly and creatively, if we treat them simply as so many consumer industries rather than as complex cultural phenomena, then we are likely to damage irreversibly the health and vitality of our own society."
Though Puttnam acknowledges he's "not naive enough to pretend that on its own cinema can capture the very soul of significant social and cultural problems," I certainly would like to believe it can come damn close.

Pine Ridge - The Film
Watching Anna Eborn's fine documentary Pine Ridge, I'm reminded of cinema's power to capture the dreams, lives and landscape by which humanity can have a conduit into their own existence. She expertly blends two profound elements of the documentary genre and in so doing, creates both a stirring narrative and cinematic poetry of the highest order. Mostly utilizing the tenets of the Direct Cinema movement (essentially invented and developed during the "Quiet Revolution" by Quebecois filmmakers working out of the Montreal studio of Canada's National Film Board [NFB] during the 50s and 60s), Eborn's kino-eye focuses upon the lives of youthful Native Americans of the Oglala Lakota Nation living on the Pine Ridge reservation of South Dakota.

For the most part, Eborn let's the words and actions of her subjects speak for themselves in a fly on the wall tradition, though she departs occasionally from the raw visual qualities of Direct Cinema by shooting the material with stunning compositions and often painting cinematic tapestries of the highest order. Using both natural and practical sources of light, reminiscent of the exquisite visuals of such contemporary masters as Austria's Ulrich Seidl, Finland's Pirjo Honkasalo and certainly that of Honkasalo's Finnish colleague Paul-Anders Simma (whose Olga is also screening at Hot Docs 2014 in Toronto), Eborn's flourishes could well be mistaken for misplaced sentimentality though I'd be amongst the first to vigorously disagree.

Some purists tend to quarrel with utilizing the full aesthetic beauty inherent in film, especially when applied to Direct Cinema when capturing some of the more harrowing aspects of the human condition, but I'd argue that the use of shaky-cam and raw lighting effects are just as much an imposition of the filmmaker upon their subjects as that which tends to do so with elegance. For me, there is considerable validity in bringing beauty of an impressionistic nature to bear upon lives led at what some might term as the outer fringes of our world.

Eborn seeks, right at the beginning of her film to knock us on our collective duffers by keeping us literally in the deep black of a rich ebony screen while we hear an unidentified male voice offer what seems like the thesis of her film, but also a stirring personal perspective from one of many of her film's subjects. These young people are, after all, the descendants of those who suffered the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre (300 Native Americans, including women and children, butchered by the U.S. Cavalry), as well as those who fought during the 1973 standoff in Pine Ridge to protest the horrendous policies of the American government and, lest we forget, the American government's reign of terror which pitted "Americanized" Sioux thugs against "traditional" Native Americans, resulting in over 50 unsolved murders during the mid-70s. For many of the descendants, life has not improved in spite of the blood of their ancestors and progenitors soaking the soil of Pine Ridge.

The words that greet us in black are as follows:
"Most people think we still live in tipis. Fuck, we have houses, man. It's just stupid, man. We have houses to live in. We have trailers. We have houses and trailers. You'd think about fuckin' ghettos in fuckin' L.A. and New York? Our whole fuckin' town is a big old fuckin' ghetto. I can bet you one hundred bucks, that everyone that lives on the reservation wants to get the fuck out of there, you know? No one wants to live there. Who would? We all try to grow up and make some money to get the fuck out of there, man. We pray for our people to get better, man. Everyday. Every fuckin' day, man, we try, man, but you know it's our land, you know. It's what the white people gave us. Gave us fuckin' shit, a shitty ass fuckin' spot to live in."
As the monologue ends, Eborn slams the title of the picture into our line of vision and delves into a series of wonderful fly on the wall moments - one involving a young man trying to sell a new tent to anyone who will listen as he approaches them in a gas/convenience store and the other featuring two young men hanging "Bill and Ted-like" at the same location, commenting wryly upon those who pull in and out under the harsh glare of outdoor lamps and fluorescent lights. She then segues, quite seamlessly, into a vaguely Cinéma vérité sequence (where "truth" is overtly manipulated) with m.o.s. shots of a young man in a diner as we hear his alternately sad and hopeful off-camera narration involving a recounting of all the siblings he's lost to imprisonment, death and just-plain moving away as well as his hope for a better life - one that he imagines could see him as an architect.

From here. Eborn treats us to a series of fascinating set-pieces involving a cast of youthful subjects involved in a variety of day-to-day activities including splashing about in a water hole, breaking horses whilst preparing for a rodeo, being Moms and in one sequence, using a variety of firearms supplied by an old cowpoke war veteran who teaches the boys how to hit targets. And though, the weight of Wounded Knee and Oglala loom largely, Eborn lets her subjects speak of this, if not in words, but by their actions. (We do, however, sojourn with Eborn to a Wounded Knee museum which seems impossible to ignore in such a portrait of life unfolding on the Pine Ridge Reservation.)

As per her overall mise-en-scène, Eborn continues to pull us from Cinema Direct territory to that of Cinéma vérité, focusing upon one young woman in a series of decidedly non-fly-on-the-wall interviews and a stirring ceremonial dance performed against the South Dakota Badlands by the same young lady adorned in traditional garb.

Life is what ultimately pulsates at the heart of this extraordinary film and though its subjects yearn for an existence beyond the reservation, Eborn's powerful evocation of the land's stunning natural beauty is mirrored in the light of her subjects' eyes. Moving on seems to be the only desire for some, while others look forward to assuming and/or resuming an itinerant exploration of the world beyond, but always acknowledging the pull of the reservation to bring them back to a home, grudgingly given to them with the spilling of blood. For others yet, they're as inextricably linked to a place that they know, love and detest with equal measure. On the surface, these all seem like aspects of life that might affect young people everywhere, but unlike the youth of the Pine Ridge Reservation, they're not the living, breathing remnants of a legacy of colonialism, genocide and a government indifferent to the benign apartheid of reservation life.

Pine Ridge is a film that conjures all the magic of cinema to give us several lives that could have been so much better lived and yet others, that seem very well lived indeed, but both exist in the shadow of shameful actions and events that continue to darken the doors of the colonizers and the colonized. We're reminded that answers have never come easily, nor, alas will they ever.

Pine Ridge is co-presented at Hot Docs 2014 in Toronto by the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. Tickets, playmates and showtimes are available at the Hot Docs website HERE.