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EXPLOITING AMERICAN INDIANS IN FILM?

Hi I just got this interesting comment to a posting that I felt I wanted to share the reply with you all to dispell a regular misconception about film production in Indian Country. The comment was:
“Are any of the royalities going to the Pine Ridge Rez? Or are they going to get took like they did with Dances with wolves, getting paid chump change; $200.00 a person to appear while the movie made millions with more Chump Change in royalities! These people need to be treated with respect, and treated like human beings! They need money to feed and clothe themselves! They went for months with no heat in the middle of winter and nobody helped! They were caught up with the Federal Goverment’s crap and got no help from them. When will this change?”

And I replied as follows:
You know I agree with your passion an sentiment about people ignoring the plight of Pine Ridge and the poverty but overall your question angered me for a very simple reason and that is It cost me personally many thousands of dollars to make the film on Pine Ridge. It was originally meant to be shot in Britain but I personally chose to shoot it on Pine Ridge because I wanted to bring economic development. In a film sense it was not practical as there are not experienced actors or crew there but my commitment to Pine Ridge brought it there. I’ve spent three years of my life on it and may never see my investment back and certainly not enough to justify my time.

Skins spent vastly more about $4 million and a reasonable amount in the area and most of that was lost. Imprint will likely lose money though not so much was shot there. Thunderheart may have broken even but only after millions were put at risk. As with Dances with Wolves, tens of millions were put at risk in a film no-one in Hollywood would invest in, the money came from England, yes it was very successful but it extras were on $200 a day then that’s a good wage for a day on that job. Films never share profits with people that were extras, it would never and could never work. Too expensive to administer etc so if the film is bringing in vast $’s into the local communities through production and since 95% of films loose money and never have royalties to pay out then why should they be obligated unlike any other business to pay those that worked on the films twice?

The other problem is that if you want a different recoupment structure for films in Indian country then investors and studios will find yet another pathetic excuse not to set films in those areas. With Rez Bomb I only took in three actors and three crew and hired everyone else locally and that is different to any other comparable reservation movie. Everyone was paid equally whether one of my very experienced stars from Hollywood or someone doing a day role from Pine Ridge who had never acted a day in their lives. They actually made more as no agents fees, SAG fees, or taxes will be taken off.

Also with Rez Bomb I did something unique which was to tell a truly universal story on a reservation not a culturally specific one that could only be set there. I want to expend beyond just the culturally specific, to break down the cultural apartheid in film and change the way people look at the possibilities of storytelling. See my other blogs on Cultural Apartheid and also my Q&A with Russell Means where he spoke of his pride in being in a universal story set on a reservation where he plays a person not a stereotype.

We are trying to fight double standards when it comes to race and culture and it would be a double standard to treat the actors in my film of one color,culture,race different than another.

But as I said at the top of the message I appreciate your passion and concern for justice for those on the reservation. I’ve also spent part of the last 10 years creating an epic feature documentary about Pine Ridge, financed by myself (and I don’t have the money to spare) and I will never break even on it.

75 comments to EXPLOITING AMERICAN INDIANS IN FILM?

  • Nameleswonderer

    Steven,
    Look forward to viewing Rez Bomb and understand the personal commitment you made in writing and directing the film. I also see the legitimacy concern in regards to western culture exploiting the Native American history, conditions while nothing every changes. What I offer as a deeper reflection is the possibility of possible next steps in our global viewpoint concerning the paradigm of natural law.

    Over the past few years I have become friends with Lakota Native American Indians at Pine Ridge and what is interesting is exploring the deeper matters of the heart of the Lakota or Native American languaging that discloses a new world in the consciousness modernity. What is obvious when you experience the situation of the reservation is the inter-generational trauma of clashing paradigms in civilizations in the historic story and breakdowns of social relations; power of oppression, demand-for-obedience, and negation-of self determination. Sounds like my current situation I am facing in modern western culture? What amazes me in the Lakota people is the natural embodied heart-song of living in circularity of the web of life, itself. Pain in living happens and suffering is a choice. The respect, knowledge, preservation of the wisdom in living in-the-moment in realization is a presence that is conserved even in the pain of existence, itself.

    The western viewpoint is blind to the hidden wisdom of living in natural law. We have created a global culture where the basic fundament is a global financial casino based in exclusion and appropriation for power. Our symbolic value of exchange conversations is money, pretense and selfish accumulation of material objects and entertainment. This paradigm in my assessment appears to be bankrupt and has no sustainable future, it is the last period of its death throes.

    What Pine Ridge Reservation has shown me in experience is the essential natural law of circularity in social relations as being legitimate-in-coexistence in present moments, not the past or future. This is a radical creative knowing reality that is not new, rather very ancient, and part of our deep fundamental biological genetic structure, itself, love. Native American friendships open a new viewpoint that is relevant to our current global concerns and breakdowns, and possibilities of a new design. A paradigm living-in-realization that we are atemporal, alive only in the moment and surrounded by a living universe communicating with us in everything presencing itself to us. The only act required is listening to the deep-rooted-heart-felt-sense of our own humanness. Stopping the insanity is a choice!

    As we encounter this current breakdown arising in the problem of our global humanity. Pine Ridge is a precious priceless conservatory of the human heart’s desire for social intimacy in the web of life that we already always belong to, and ignore every moment in our living. It’s more than a green sprout in the formation of a solution to our situation in politics, education, religion, science and commercial coordinations in our systemic discourses and institutions. It is a living languaging of heart song aware of the moment that has been passed from grandparents to grandchildren for generations, an inner altar of social relations as the fundament for human happiness.

    Future generosity of western civilization is not how to cure the poverty, drama and trauma of reservation living. The deeper generosity and give-a-way is to wake-up ourselves from dreaming and embrace the quiet listening of a new paradigm within ourselves that is already always operating in the revelatory principle of social relations in our lives, like friends. Transforming systemic institutions of power to presencing the heart of love, itself, legitimacy-in-coexistence for a multi-verse of new worlds to be discovered. Its not going back to tribal blood relations of the past, it is opening up awareness to the creative radical reality that we live in oneness with all life in momentariness. A paradigm where square boxes of arrogant and aggressive certainties disappear and circularity arises in presencing the human heart with one another moment-to-moment. The change we seek is not without, rather within our own perceptions of power, separation and dualistic experience in a living universe, now.

    We long today for living-in-realization in a new symbolic exchange of creativity, innovation and collaboration as conscious human beings. The Lakota Paradigm (Native Americans) offer a way to see and awaken in designing a new world together. A new world where we see poverty not as a condition to save rather a new horizon to explore as a way of being happy every moment with the gift of one another in revelation.

    Check out The Lakota Paradigm by Jhon Goes In Center on YouTube and look forward to following this conversation on Twitter.

    Thank you for your generous give-a-way and caring to listen to the multi-verse surrounding the current predatory chaos. I appreciate the heart you are bringing forth and support your future works.
    nameleswonderer

  • Sonja Teuwen

    Who is this nameleswonder? Bravo! I need to sit quiet for a minute before writing, for you have fed my soul. Beautifully written and poignant to the broader discourse at hand.
    A dear Haida friend of mine, whom I refer to as ‘a living prayer’, once told me this story:
    Several University educated women (ED), who studied Aboriginal peoples, before, during, and after colonization, visited some Indians on their reservation.The ED’s were all fired up, eager and excited to talk and advocate for these Indians from the knowledge they’ve acquired. So, during the visit the ED’s were talking and talking about all sorts of pertinent issues, discussing the rights and wrongs of this and that. All the while, the Indians sat quiet, just listening. After an hour of talking and discussing amongst each other, the ED’s left.
    The ED’s said to each other on their way home, “Boy, are those Indians dumb, they don’t say a thing!”
    The Indians on the other hand, when the ED’s left, burst out in to laughter and said, “Man, are those women dumb, they don’t stop talking!”
    As a culture, the White peoples are not known to listen, and as such learn very slowly, for it is by listening that we learn. To truly listen, we need to allow ourselves to feel so that we can be compassionate. Who is in more pain, those oppressed or the oppressors, and who feels sorry for whom?
    I guess that the question arises, why not let the Indians make their own films, tell their own stories – if they want to – and us Whites stick to telling our own stories?
    I am made up of German, Polish, gypsy, poverty, single motherhood, and female gender – all of which have a story of oppression, violence, segregation, silencing, and other violations of basic human rights. I can tell my story if I want to, but if someone, doesn’t matter who, is able to tell my story as well or better than I, by all means, tell it.
    I think it important that we support good storytellers. It doesn’t matter whose story is being told.

  • I agree with nameleswanderer, I am a lakota and he speaks an excellent story. He needs to go to the Hopi and Navajo Rez and not only listen, but helps them prevent what the white miners are doing to their culture and lands.This is an excellent movie documentary of a situation happening “NOW!”
    As Sonja Teuwan said in her blog;As a culture, the White peoples are not known to listen, and as such learn very slowly, for it is by listening that we learn. To truly listen, we need to allow ourselves to feel so that we can be compassionate. Who is in more pain, those oppressed or the oppressors, and who feels sorry for whom?
    I guess that the question arises, “why not let the Indians make their own films, tell their own stories – if they want to – and us Whites stick to telling our own stories?”
    That’s how I feel also.
    I was born on the Rez, raised on the Rez, most of my 62 years, yes I’m an elder as is Russel Means. But I’m not a movie star. I’m the elder who has suffered quietly, and took on the task of working meanial labor jobs to support myself and 3 children, Their Father was killed back in 1950 for being at the wrong place at the wrong time by some drunk White’s. This is beginning to sound like one of those films about the Blacks now. And the White do gooders who filmed so many stories, trying to make a difference and to give the blacks their rights and so on. The Native American’s and their stories were brushed aside, we were just lower than human’s. And this goes on today. My children who left the Rez to find a better place, eventually came home where they were treated with respect, by people of their own race.
    People say why should we help them, they own casino’s are blind to the fact that the Whites own them and few Rez’s get any support from them. Look behind the casino’s, and you will see the truth. There are a few NDN;s who get alot of money and control of the casino’s; they push alot of their tribe away and live in their own glut and greed!
    I’m sorry for my opinion about the film makers and a few elder’s who think these films help make a difference. I sit in silence by my hut, eating government handouts and selling my beadwork to get whatever is needed to get by.

  • steve

    I thank you for your opinions and boy they raise some amazing points. Lakotalady, I appreciate you sharing your experiences and yes wholeheartedly agree that we need to see more Indians telling their own stories on screen, though the reality of the film business is that it costs a huge amount of money to make a film normally so they also need to find an audience so hopefully they can make films that can be well supported so they can create their own industry. But the prejudice goes further as most people in the industry would just validate the few established American Indian directors by occasionally letting them tell their own stories rather than treating them as equals and offering them other Hollywood films to direct. I don’t know a single director who wants to just tell stories about one place or culture or one type of story.

    For me I didn’t tell an American Indian story with Rez Bomb, I told a story about a guy and a girl in love but get themselves into trouble and try to dig themselves out. I could have set it anywhere in the world. I chose to spend my budget where it was more needed and also shoot somewhere I was familiar with. The American Indian and First Nations people that have seen it at festivals have responded the strongest to the film as they get a lot of subtleties in it that others miss but most importantly they are happy to watch a film that entertains them with people on screen they can relate to.

    Something very true in the world is that people who live hard lives in poor communities want to be entertained more than shown films depicting how hard their lives are (as that’s what they want to escape to) but at the same time they want to see characters on screen in those entertaining movies that they can relate to. For me Rez Bomb is almost unique in this sense and I am very proud of that.

    But where there is relative equality in the film business is that if you make a film that loses money the industry looses interest in financing films of that nature. Eg: Skins was I am sure relatively easy to finance on a good budget because Smoke Signals made good money, but when Skins lost a lot of money that tap was turned off. If Rez Bomb is successful it opens the door to more contemporary, entertaining films that happen to be in Indian Country and that opens the door to actors, crew and opportunity throughout all those communities.

  • Well Steve, I commend you for all you have done for the NDN’s. I wish you luck and great wealth in all your films. I have bought a preorder film and will wait paciently for it. I understand your great passion for this film. Making films of the ancient’s,people don’t want and don’t understand. Our ways of life and culure are lost with time. PBS has had a series of films from the start when the first Spaniards arrived. This series will be put in the Smithsonian Institute, with all the great works of history.Those films are of true grit as close to the history as can be. If you get a chance to watch them, they tell a factual story. I must stop now, my hands are jerking out control. My illnes is needing to rest and get meds.

  • steve

    Thanks so much for your message and support in ordering the film.

  • CedarElkWoman

    I saw that Rez Bomb was in theatres in two border towns around Pine Ridge, and wanted to see it just because it made it that close to the Rez! But I’m in school at OLC – which is just about killing me – so I am glad to read here that it can be bought as a dvd, which is what I am getting from these posts.
    As for me, I look at the content of films as well as where the $ goes, and Dances with and Thunderheart – as opposed to Skins or Incident at Oglala – are WAY problematic for me. I appreciate that Rez Bomb was made on Pine Ridge, because that DOES help the economy, and it needs it more than any other place, it was a LOW-budget film. Dances and Thunder were made – with BIG BUDGETS and for one reason and one reason only: TO MAKE MONEY. The others were made to tell our stories, thankfully some by US. Or at least LISTENING to US. Thank you. I’ll order it too.

  • Hi I appreciate your support and sentiments. Though the thing is when Dances with Wolves was made it was considered so risky that no Hollywood studio would fund it despite having a major star in the lead. The budget was tight for an epic like that and the funding was mostly raised via London. The fact it was successful was a big shock to the industry and was very unexpected. Even many big budget movies struggle to make their money back in the short time because there so expensive to market.

    I don’t imagine Thunderheart ever made much money again because it was hard to raise the budget. (It was made by the same English director who made Incident at Oglala).

    The industry would rather have all these stories set in locations they felt were easier to market mostly because they’d have access to bigger stars that can be marketed. In spite of that we as storytellers want to tell our stories in the places we want to tell them and circumvent the industry to do it. We’re putting in a lot of effort to do the same with the distribution so it is easy to find for those in the films most interested audience. For example Kyle on the Rez has the most retailers in the area selling the film and on Pine Ridge in general is is easier to find than anywhere else in the planet. That was important to us and am very glad the response we’ve had to the film there has been so good. It really is the icing on the cake

  • Wow! new native film… nice. I haven’t seen it yet but I seen Skins by Chris E and I thought it was a great story. I’m also a wanna be film maker and it’s hell trying to make films. White people are beating us to the punch with film they are making. I mean, we’ve been telling them our life stories and histories. They’ve been making films through our stories and it’s always a white guy that saves us. I don’t think I would want to act in a film like that. I have my honor. I have about another year before I graduate and hopefully to major in Films and Theater. I’m also a low budget film maker too and I’m writing a screenplay and a short play. I’m not going to tell how it goes because it’s a dog eat dog world out there, people will steal your ideas. It’s Hollywood and they will cut your throat. LOL!!!!! so I’ll be around and hopefully you like my film someday… or short play. See ya soon. Chris F

  • Hi Chris

    Well I wish you all the very best as you move forward with your work.

    Steve

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