Film Critic Harry Taylor speaks with independent director Steven Lewis Simpson about Native American representation in cinema, and his innovative release strategy for Neither Wolf Nor Dog
Neither Wolf Nor Dog aims simply to tell the American Indian’s truth. Filmed on a modest budget and funded partly by a Kickstarter campaign, the movie adapts Kent Nerburn’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, exploring the journey of white writer Kent (Christopher Sweeney) tasked by a Native American elder Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) to faithfully tell the story of the Lakota people. Embarking on a road trip with the ageing man and his nephew, Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), Kent experiences a stark account of modern Native American life,shedding his cultural pretences and learning to listen to the stories of those who have seen their people lose everything. It is an honest, deeply authentic film that asks you to listen, to empathise and to try to understand. After becoming the most successful self-distributed film at the US box office in 2017, the film has had the longest theatrical run of any US release in over a decade, despite being an independent production. As it makes its debut in UK cinemas this week, I spoke with director Steven Lewis Simpson about the difficulties faced when filming on a smaller budget, the opportunities offered by his unique cast and why the film’s message matters.
When asked about the importance of telling authentic Native American stories in film, Simpson makes a bold assertion: ‘I would say the greatest crime committed by cinema in the world is the depiction of indigenous Americans. I mean, Hollywood had been putting out pro-genocide cinema for a hundred years or so, pure propaganda cinema, of a type that is really hard to find in the world. You know, if you study propaganda cinema from the Nazis, I’ve never seen anything as gratuitous as your average run-of-the-mill western from the ’50s, completely dehumanising a people and justifying the genocide against them. And it truly is that extreme.’
Even today, positive Native American representation is excluded from the narrative. Simpson points out how in films like The Birth of a Nation (1916), known for its virulent, racist depiction of African Americans, ‘the construction [of racial stereotypes] is identical to that of hundreds of thousands of scenes in westerns that could be shown today without anyone even thinking “perhaps we should have a scholar come in and contextualise this.”’ He similarly emphasises that the exclusion of indigenous Americans from fair and honest representation carries over to the real world. He highlights the disproportionate levels of police violence toward Indigenous communities: ‘Never is it mentioned, because they do not exist. And so it is absolutely critical that there are a few films out there being made.’
Creating a dialogue around Native American issues, then, seems to inform Simpson’s desire to screen the film in theatres, rather than simply releasing digitally: ‘To be honest, I’m not one of these filmmakers that’s all precious about cinema releases. As an independent filmmaker, you can’t be because it’s rare. And it never bothered me with other films, but with this one it’s different.’
‘For example, I never realised that the film was rather funny. You know, I knew there were jokes in it but when I premiered it at the Edinburgh film festival, there was a Navajo lady studying at Oxford who was driving up with her kids to see it, and I said to her “oh, I’ll know who you are because you’ll be the only person laughing in the audience.” I was so wrong – it was extraordinary. And I realised that [the audience] was laughing with the joking rather than the punchline. They’re engaged with the characters and so they’re reacting to the characters. In a way that’s much nicer because it’s about that human connection, and on the small screen that doesn’t come across. And also in those scenes towards the end when you can really hear a pin drop in the audience, there’s moments after that with bits of humour where there’s a kind of collective relief.’
‘The other thing is that the film has to do for the audience what the elder is doing for the white author; it’s a film that has to make you sit down, shut up and learn to listen in a different way. And there’s a lot of detail in the film, it’s just a question of whether people are wired to pick it up. It’s about creating a tone and an atmosphere which translates in a cinema in a way that doesn’t on the small screen.’
The film features a central, quietly captivating performance from Native American actor, soldier and musician Dave Bald Eagle, who was 95 years of age at the time of shooting. Before his passing in 2016, Dave saw the film’s final cut and told Simpson it was the only movie he’d ever seen about his people that told the truth. When asked what energy he brought to the set, Simpson remembers: ‘[Dave] was a joy, he was a lot of fun. Tremendous amount of laughter. One of the things that’s very different about Kent [the film’s character] and myself, is Kent goes into that space trying to be very proper, trying not to put a foot wrong, trying to show his cultural awareness, whereas I go in not giving a fuck. And the difference is people enjoy you that way because you’re not creating barriers by trying to be proper.’
Simpson describes how this ‘bond of peers’ between himself and his cast meant Dave felt comfortable improvising during the film’s emotional climax, in which Dan and Kent visit the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where, in 1890, three hundred Lakota Indians, mostly women and children, were shot dead by soldiers of the United States Army: Dave’s presence imbues the film with a remarkable authenticity, and seeing an actor onscreen who is himself only a generation removed from the genocide of America’s indigenous population makes for almost unbearably honest, potent viewing. Whilst the role Dave is playing is fictional, every line his character has hints at Dave’s real, lived experience as part of a minority.
Simpson also discusses the difficulties of filming independently under ‘extreme conditions’: ‘One hundred and twenty five shooting hours over about eighteen days, I had an average crew of two, no one else involved in the film in post-production or pre-production, which is insane, but you can’t raise a budget with a 95 year old star; no one will insure you. And undoubtedly there were things that were lost out on because of a lack of budget, certain things it’d have been nicer to have staged in a different way, but what we gained through the intimacy, through that final scene at Wounded Knee for example was far, far more important’.
When talking about his distribution methods for the movie, Simpson mentions the advantages of releasing to separate, targeted cinemas rather than a traditional theatrical release: ‘I think that if it was released in a Hollywood manner in the US, [the film] would find itself in a handful of cinemas in the big cities and the people that would go see it are your kind of liberal intellectual class. But where it’s been very successful is in the regions where they have the harshest prejudices against the different tribes and whatever else, and it does extremely well in some of those border towns, and it’s a very mixed audience coming to see the film. I hear of amazing conversations in the lobby afterwards and that’s really gratifying. It’s a much older audience as well, and actually the older audience are probably the ones that have lived with the deepest prejudice over those years and, in many ways, a lot of the harshest history. On Pine Ridge reservation [the movie’s primary shooting location], the 70s was a very, very violent time. In a 2-and-a-half-year period, they had a political murder and disappearance rate as high as Chile under Pinochet.’
‘You can see where it’s drawing audiences together – there was a cinema last year that was very close to the reservation where we filmed and the owners had had the cinema for 15 months and we were their second best performing film in that 15 months, and they just show Hollywood movies. We beat every Marvel movie within that time, we’ve beaten Beauty and the Beast, we’ve beaten all these mega blockbusters and so that was very gratifying, knowing how those areas are.’
And with regards to the film’s critical reception, Simpson admits: ‘to be 100% honest I’ve been very pleasantly surprised, I thought I’d be a bit more hammered by the critics to that effect, but the reviews have been much better in general.’
‘And sometimes I get the odd review saying good things about the film and then it’s kinda like, “but it felt like a bunch of complaining militant Indians”, and you’re like, shit … it’s like a white reviewer who doesn’t like being lectured to.’
Similarly perplexed by reviews that disregard his ability to tell a Native American story as a ‘white guy’, Simpson says ‘you know the crazy thing is, the person who’s lobbied harder for native depiction in cinema than any other individual is a guy called Sonny Skyhawk, who created the lobbying group American Indians in Film and Television. And he’s been to so many of the showings and he publicly describes it as a Native American classic, and is just in love with the movie. So the people that actually know that world love it.’
Towards the end of the interview, when asked about his favourite Native American directors and films, Simpson admits; ‘it’s such a narrow list, I mean that’s the sad part of it’. He mentions Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals and Edge of America as the most famous examples, and films to him that are ‘particularly enjoyable and complete. But it really is such a narrow line of films’.
Yet Neither Wolf Nor Dog’s release and remarkably long theatrical run hopefully hint towards a shift. The appetite for stories about Native American issues, told genuinely by directors who care, clearly exists both in the States and elsewhere, and the film’s innovative distribution method means independent filmmakers don’t necessarily have to sell their souls to Hollywood to tell them. With limited resources, Simpson has managed to create a deeply empathetic film whilst achieving significant reach through considerable online momentum. One hopes more independent filmmakers follow the lead.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog is in cinemas now.
Images courtesy of InYo Entertainment.