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"America just doesn’t want to acknowledge it’s dirty little history." Interview with Neither Wolf Nor Dog director Steven Lewis Simpson

22 August 19 interview: Ashley Carter & Derry Shillitto

We talked to Scottish-born filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson about his latest film, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, ahead of its upcoming screening at Broadway Cinema…

Steven Lewis Simpson is no stranger to Native American culture. With a canon of projects that include Rez Bomb, A Thunder-Being Nation and The Hub – which was the first original series commissioned by Native American TV channel US FNX – the Scottish director has made a career out of shining a light on First Nation stories. His latest film, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, is no different, telling the story of Dan, a Lakota Elder who seeks out the help of Nerburn, a white author, to write a book about his life.

How did you first come across this story, and what was the process of getting it from page to screen like?
I had been filming on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the film is set, for many years. I was presenting a screening of another film that I had shot there, Rez Bomb which, coincidentally, the author of Neither Wolf Nor Dog (Kent Nerburn) came along to see. He approached me afterwards and told me that people in Hollywood had been making grand, false promises for years about making it into a film, but it was never going anywhere. He thought, “Well here’s somebody that actually gets stuff made that’s set there.” It took me a while to read it, but after that I pledged that I’d get it made by any means necessary. That was over eight years ago and it really has been by any means necessary!

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during filming?
The central thing was finding the perfect person to play the central role of Dan, and I searched around for quite a long time. knew quite a few of the prominent Native actors, and some of the older ones were in their seventies. Crucially, in the novel the character is eighty years old – but it came out in the mid-nineties, so it wasn’t so much the age of the character, but the era her was from, which meant I had to go older. I finally found Dave (Bald Eagle) when he was a mere 93, which was followed by two tense years of scrambling to pull everything together – I knew that if for any reason anything happened to him, I was going to walk away from the project; there was no point without him.

The innovative distribution model behind the film has received a lot of attention, including the TED talk you gave on the subject. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Distributors just want easy sells, and for any independent filmmaker it’s hard to bring an audience. What we’ve done that’s so successful is to look at each audience and each cinema on a unique basis. We go in and do that marketing very specifically, because people listen to their local radio and their newspapers in a way that a lot of the bigger national papers don’t really reach – especially when your release is spread out over a long period of time.

In the US, we’ve been in around 450 venues so far, and in some of them we’ve beaten every Hollywood film we’ve been up against. It’s actually come a long way since I gave that TED talk, which came out about half-way through the release. It’s insane, because in some states we’ve been a phenomenon, and then there’s other states where we haven’t even played in one cinema yet. But if you were to pro-rate how we did in South Dakota to a National average, this year we would have been the 46th most successful film in the US. We open in LA for the first time soon, which is normally the first place that a film opens, so we’re doing things in a very, very different way. We’re trying to find our audience, rather than any audience. 

When you look at Nazi propaganda films, they’re not as severe as your average Hollywood Western, which has been actively perpetuating a pro-genocide narrative for over 100 years.

The film has received a really positive reception so far – do you think much of that is a result of the current socio-political climate?
The funny thing is, you’d think that places like LA would be the areas that it would do well in, but it’s actually doing the best in and around the region where we filmed, and those old-school Republican areas, which is really pleasing to me. Those are the border towns where there is a lot of racism and misunderstanding. It’s great that the film is bringing large audiences from both communities into the same space.

The narrative manages to land with people in a way that the divisive narratives of today don’t, although you’ll still get people out there thinking that it’s just a film about a bunch of militant Indians, which is what I read in one review. Dave is the least militant guy you’re ever going to meet! But some people just can’t get that into their head. In the UK, the embrace is far broader because we don’t have that issue of prejudice or guilt that exists in a lot of the US, and audiences in the UK have been really open to the film.  

For most people, their only exposure to Native American people would come through the cinema where, traditionally, they are portrayed as either godless savages or magical, mystical figures. How cautious were you to avoid that sort of dangerous misrepresentation?
It’s the single greatest crime ever committed by cinema, and I cannot think of any instance in human history that’s been more severe. When you look at Nazi propaganda films, they’re not as severe as your average Hollywood Western, which has been actively perpetuating a pro-genocide narrative for over 100 years.

It’s interesting that they’ll show Birth of a Nation, for example, in the context of ‘this is a deeply important film in cinema history, but it’s a diabolical, despicable, racist narrative.’ And yet you’ll see the worst scenes in that film replicated in a thousand Westerns without any sort of disclaimer at the beginning.

But to your point about that and my film, the thing is, we all had those Westerns growing up. But we typically watch them thinking, ‘obviously this is absurd, we know whose land it was.’ We didn’t have the propaganda of being American and having that narrative pumped down our throats. In terms of Native issues, Europeans are far, far more aware of what’s going on there today than most people in the United States. The Guardian and the BBC constantly do amazing reporting on Native issues, and you will pretty much never see that in most major US news outlets. 

What was the response from the Native actors at being able to play authentic characters on film, particularly Dave Bald Eagle, who has since sadly passed away?
Dave knew it was the most important thing he’d done on screen, and after seeing it said it was the only film he’d ever been in about his people that told the truth. He had ancestors massacred at Wounded Knee, so when we filmed there I threw away the script for the film’s climatic scene, and he improvised the whole sequence, speaking from his heart because he was closer to it than the character he was playing. After that, he said to Christopher Sweeney, who plays Nerburn, that he’d been holding that in for 95 years.

The magic of the film is Dave Bald Eagle, because he has people listen through their heart, and they listen in a different way. He was mischievous and had an amazing sense of humour and you know, that face, that glowing face on screen. I’ll never photograph a more beautiful face; it’s just not possible. I don’t even want to talk to anyone who can watch that film and not fall in love with him! He’s so unique and amazing.

The crazy this is, Dave was left for dead on D-Day, and Christopher was also a veteran – he received a Silver Star during the Gulf War. Yet Richard Ray Whitman, who was never in the service, spent more days under gunfire that both of them. He was at Wounded Knee in 1973, where the US Government circled activists and fired an estimated 500,000 bullets on them over 71 days.

If you’re a white rancher in Nebraska or a Lakota on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, as far as the media is concerned, you don’t exist. America just doesn’t want to acknowledge it’s dirty little history.

Personally, one of the most astounding things that came from the film was reading about Dave Bald Eagle’s life afterwards, and learning that his grandfather fought at Little Bighorn. It really put into perspective the close proximity of the timeline during which Native American culture has been decimated…

In Native culture you know your family lineage – it is a deep thing. So things that happened generations ago are still felt presently, because the stories get passed down. There was an old-timer I knew a few years ago (who was in my documentary about the Reservation) whose father was at the Battle of Little Bighorn. It’s exactly like you say – it just seems like a million years ago, but life does catch up on you that way.

The important thing to remember is: that wasn’t where the bad stuff ended. I have a friend on the Reservation that was sterilised against her knowledge by the Government when she was twelve years old. Many young Native women in the fifties, sixties and seventies were, and during the 1970s on that reservation they had a disappearance and murder rate equivalent to Chile under the death squads of Pinochet – it was about seven times higher than Detroit at a time when Detroit was considered the murder capital of the US. My friend Russell Means had six attempts on his life, and another man I knew who was a Native leader burnt an American flag during a protest in the late seventies. The next day, his wife, three children and mother-in-law where all killed in a house fire. The pretty much know who’s behind it – it’s people working for the Government.

It’s still very present, too. Just look at the level of violence the government threw at the Standing Rock protest. It had been going for seven months and then, on the first night the temperature dropped below zero, they used a water canon on the protestors. It might not be as extreme as it once was, but they’re still battering them rather than shooting them. At the height of the wonderful Black Lives Matter movement – which is a terrifically important thing in the US – on not one programme did I ever see anyone bring up the fact that young Native American men are in the highest proportion being killed by police in the United States.

Why do you think that is?
Firstly, it’s an educational blind spot. A lot of people growing up in the States just think Native people have all gone, and that’s sadly, and quite sickly, true. You have an American Football team in Washington – one of the biggest franchises in the game – that has a dictionary-defined racist term as it’s name.

Secondly, it’s access to media. In the US, if you exist beyond the coasts, or beyond Chicago, you generally don’t exist. I mean if you’re a white rancher in Nebraska or a Lakota on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, as far as the media is concerned, you don’t exist. America just doesn’t want to acknowledge it’s dirty little history.

The film is fantastic, and the success it has had has meant you’ve been promoting it and getting it into cinemas for a couple of years now. How exhausting a process has that been, and has it make it difficult to move on to the next project?
You absolutely nailed it! I’ve done a lot of interviews for this film, but you’ve honed in on the biggest part of the whole story! That is, how on Earth have I got through this with my sanity? There was a nine-month period when it went into cinemas where I was lucky if I had two or three hours to myself in a week. It was literally work, sleep, work, sleep. As time has gone one I’ve been able to bring two or three more people on to help, but it’s gruelling because I’ve had no life to speak of. It’s a weird loss of identity because your whole form of communication comes through the project, rather than your own existence.

I have to say that it would have been much harder to do if it wasn’t for what Dave did in the film, because I know it’s part of his legacy, and I know the volume of the film is greater than just being a movie. I couldn’t have put that amount of work in if had just been for commercial reasons – it had to be something more meaningful. But I’m slowly starting to work on the next film, which I’ll hopefully shoot in the New Year. It’s just hard to give anything else much oxygen because this is holding all of my attention.

What’s still great though is that we’ve got a lot of screenings in the UK, where we’ve been getting great audiences. With Nottingham coming up, that first showing at Broadway Cinema is actually going to be the first in England. I couldn’t do this if it wasn’t for great cinemas like Broadway taking a risk and championing the film. Because I’m not a traditional distributor, they’re taking a chance, and when I can repay them with wonderful results, it’s the best feeling. There’s nothing better in life than one person having faith in another. It’s like Dave Bald Eagle having faith in me.

Neither Wolf Nor Dog is screening at Broadway Cinema from Friday 23 August

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