August 21, 2012

My interview with Steven Lewis Simpson

I met filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson on my recent trip to South Dakota. Here's an interview I did with him afterward.

A Thunder Being Nation: A Comprehensive Documentary on Pine Ridge Debuts

By Rob SchmidtFilmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson has had an interesting career trajectory. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland, he became the youngest qualified stockbroker in Britain at 18. Fascinated by film, he made his first low-budget movie five years later. More film projects followed.

That doesn’t explain how he came to America and ended up making
A Thunder-Being Nation, perhaps the definitive documentary about Pine Ridge. Via e-mail, ICTMN asked him about his journey.
As with my Misty Upham interview, follow the link to read the published interview. But here's the long, unexpurgated version exclusively for Newspaper Rock readers:How did someone from Scotland become interested in American Indians?

Europeans grow up without the propaganda of “How the West Was Won” and thus more clearly see and empathize with the genocide that took place here and how appalling it is that the indigenous people who were also the best caretakers of the land are the people treated the worst in the US. But when I learned the story of Wovoka and the Ghost Dance movement and the events leading up to the Wounded Knee massacre it started to impact me far more deeply and I started developing a screenplay that in part dealt with that.

What drew you to Pine Ridge in particular?

I first headed to Pine Ridge in the summer of 1999 after I saw on the news that a Ghost Shirt taken from the Wounded Knee massacre site was due to be repatriated from a Scottish museum where it had been since 1891 to Pine Ridge and the moment I heard I knew I was going. Through twists of fate within my first three hours of being there I visited Wounded Knee and then Camp Justice which was newly formed protesting the lack of investigation over the murder of two Lakota men in White Clay, Nebraska, and then found myself at Russell Means's house where three days of political meetings were commencing and he asked me to film it.

Why did you decide to make A Thunder-Being Nation?

The documentary really sprang out of those experiences by chance. I filmed those initial events including those commemorating the Ghost Shirt's return and it made a tremendous impact and so I kept returning as people there wanted me to film more. It all snowballed from there as I made a commitment to those inviting me into their homes and their stories.

How did you gain the confidence of the usually wary Indians?

My feeling is if you find people wary in Indian country then you're doing something wrong. I find people in white border towns wary of me but never in Lakota country. Just by being yourself and open makes all the difference but the biggest asset I've found is having a raucous sense of humor. From a filming stand-point I didn't have a fixed agenda and let people there dictate how interviews were set up and what they wanted to talk about.

What were the biggest challenges in making the film?

Editing, editing and editing. With about 80 hours of original footage where we cover all the topics imaginable, bringing it into a smooth narrative was very time-consuming indeed. Then the task became finding archive [film] that could be woven through the narrative to make it come alive.

Which moments are you proudest of presenting in the film? Are there any moments you wanted to include, but couldn’t?

The film is so dense it is difficult to pinpoint individual points but there is some footage I found of the 7th Cavalry returning to Pine Ridge in 1913 as part of a tour forcing people on the reservations into adopting elaborate flag raising ceremonies. There is such power in the footage that it impacts me every time it appears in the documentary. I put the full source film on the extra features.

I ended up cutting out the footage of the Ghost Shirt repatriation because it was not necessary for the narrative and that was unfortunate but I included a part of it in the extra features. In all honesty there were many events that I was involved in that would have been amazing in the documentary but I felt it was not appropriate for me to film them. Most documentary filmmakers would have filmed through those times but would not then have gained the trust required to shoot such a breadth of material.

Ultimately I feel a real pride over the whole package of the Ultimate Edition DVD as I don't think there's a comparable resource about a single reservation available as within the 10 hours of extras there are some terrific full interviews with elders that have passed on and outtakes and full documentaries that made up much of our archive material.

What are the challenges in distributing and marketing a film such as A Thunder-Being Nation?

This is very hard. Traditional distribution would more or less ignore Indian country and that is not acceptable to me and so I direct distribute it into Indian country and particularly in Lakota country so it's available in corner stores, gas stations, trading posts etc. Online is hard though as although thousands of people are on our social networks few actually are purchasing DVDs. I think so many people now are used to illegally downloading movies that it kills it from our end. Without illegal downloading my Pine Ridge movie Rez Bomb would have been able to cover its costs so we could have produced more films in Indian country by now. The only way these time-consuming projects (2-3 years just editing A Thunder-Being Nation) can be made is by people out there who want to see them supporting them in the market. The game changer that could happen is when supporters of these projects actively help to get the word out about them to bring in a larger audience. At a certain point then films in Indian country become self-sustainable.

With Children of the Plains, Life on the Rez, and Aaron Huey’s projects, there seems to be a growing interest in Pine Ridge. Is this interest real? What’s behind it, if anything?

There's been an interest and empathy with Pine Ridge for years from Europe. News crews from major channels have come over and covered things. The US is catching up somewhat at the moment. I appreciate a lot of the work that is done though it is hard to fully cover the story in 42 minutes of TV. That's why for me A Thunder-Being Nation is set apart as it covers a full sweep of events from the origin story through to today and thus puts contemporary issues in context. Someone watching Children of the Plains are still not going to full appreciate educational issues with the kids for example if they don't understand the historical trauma from the boarding school system that still resonates through their world today. But we've gone from a place of people complaining about issues on Pine Ridge being ignored to one of frustration from some over how they are being covered. So that's at least an initial forward movement. Though I must say these shows lack the depth of my documentary or others like The Canary Effect.

With all these sources of information available, why should people watch A Thunder-Being Nation?

The crucial difference between A Thunder-Being Nation and these recent programs is an editorial one in that I stayed out of the way of the narrative as possible. This is very much in the words of a broad range of people on Pine Ridge. Also I covered many more of those voices. Numerous tribal presidents, elders, youth, and crucially a strong balance between male and female voices. The 10 hours of extras on the Ultimate Edition DVD I feel also provides an unparalleled resource.

What projects are you working on now? Anything new or exciting you want to share with your fans?

We're preparing to shoot an adaptation of Kent Nerburn's hugely popular novel Neither Wolf Nor Dog set throughout Lakota country. We're financed and ready to go and are just trying to assemble the perfect cast at the moment. Also I've shot a pilot promo for a magazine-type TV series about the contemporary creative community in Indian country today. It will be a very fun, vibrant and inspiring show.
Comment:  For more on Simpson's work, see Native Films Need Crossover Potential and Rez Bomb Released on DVD.

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