A video I made for the San Antonio Film Commission’s #FilmSa contest.
Stills from Eloge de l’amour (Dir. Jean Luc Godard, 2002).
Awake, a Dream From Standing Rock, is all politics and no aesthetics.
Or, at its best, its politics are muddled and its aesthetics are weak and unoriginal.
Awake is a pastiche-style documentary seemingly designed to stir up outrage over the Standing Rock Protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. For those unaware, the pipeline transfers oil from the Bakken oil shell In North Dakota, to Illinois. On its journey there, it passes underneath the Missouri River. If the pipeline were to break or leak, it would threaten the water supply of 17 million people.
Equally important, the pipeline also passes through lands that are sacred to the Sioux and other tribes. These lands became sites of violent confrontations between North Dakota law enforcement and unarmed, mostly-Indigenous “Water Protectors” who were there to protest the re-routing of the pipeline through Sioux burial sites.
In its first section, the film takes great pains to show that drones were used to capture much of its footage, which includes unprecedented access to moments of police brutality against the protesters during a freezing night in November of 2016.
The images would be tragic if the movie didn’t simplify the protesters’ struggle into a garbled, uninformed political diatribe.
The manipulative outrage tactics of cable news, Russian bots, and Cambridge Analytica have infiltrated the film medium, and Awake is a good example of this. Awake uses the same outrage tactics that drive online clicks by pushing our emotions into negative places.
Few people at the site of the protests are allowed to speak for themselves in interview footage, giving the “Water Protectors” a vaguely defined group identity that becomes eerily reminiscent of the portrayal of Natives-as-pantomiming-creatures in Terrence Malick’s The New World.
In Awake, the filmmakers lazily chose to compare the “Water Protectors” to the “Indians” of the “Cowboy v. Indians” conflict that is prevalent throughout the entire Western genre.
The police are obviously delineated into the (surprise) “Cowboy” half of the “Cowboy v. Indians” motif that Awake strenuously underlines during the first chapter. They too, are given as much screen time as the protesters to speak for themselves, and so they become just as faceless.
Going back to the the Terrence Malick style that the movie inexplicably affects, the first section is marked by a female voice over narrator whose presence in the movie grows redundant, as she sometimes only directly describes what is taking place on screen. In an unexplained attempt to sound like Linda Manz in Days of Heaven expressing child-like wonder at the natural world, the narrator speaks and describes the world in a detached, passive tone.
The sleepy sounding narrator even says the protesters are “Water,” and that the North Dakota police are “oil.”
In one of Awake‘s worst moments, the violent confrontation between the “Water Protectors” and the police is juxtaposed with archival photos of Indians and Old West cowboys and present-day footage of the violence at the protests.
The drone footage, shot from from high above, like the Cowboy v. Indian motif stressed early on in the film, turns the violence experienced by the protesters into a simplified ideological struggle. All of the footage showing police brutality incites anger within the ideological conflict that spews from network news and talk radio. The Liberal vs. Conservative narrative style and aesthetics of the mainstream news media infect the film’s advocacy stance.
Awake is mostly reflective of the media environment in which we live. As a gimmick, the drones create a sense of distance that dilutes the reasons that drove the protests, just as the immediacy of causes like NODAPL are lost in the social media blur that has drowned out its message. As a recent example of politically slanted advocacy filmmaking, Awake‘s presentation is heavily driven by the Establishment sensibilities and modes of presentation that it thinks it’s speaking out against. The oil industry, the militarized police industrial complex, the news media that inform Awake‘s style and presentation, and the producers of this movie, all benefit from the NODAPL movement more than the indigenous protesters ever will.
While watching footage of the police abusing the protesters, I began to compare the riot scenes in Awake to the Odessa Steps sequence from Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein’s rendering of a mass of people being oppressed by authoritarian figures was more concise and artful because of the strong ideological stance that informed his work.
Awake seethes with outrage at authority figures, but it goes no deeper than the cowboys versus Indians motif that the movie establishes without subtlety.
The cowboys and Indians comparison in Awake pushes Indigenous people back into “Old West” stereotypes that most Native filmmakers in the U.S. claim to decry. And similar to many representations of Native people (made by indigenous and non-indigenous filmmakers), Awake uses a defeatist point of view in its portrayal of Native Americans.
Eisenstein, who was a Marxist, knew that stand-ins for authoritarian figures like the Cossack soldiers on the Odessa Steps and military servicemen where only cogs in an oppressive system. The creators of Awake don’t explore the idea that the police officers are forced to drink the same potentially polluted drinking water. Economically speaking, many of the police and Indigenous protesters have been equally exploited by the State and by big corporations.
The authoritarian march on average people depicted in Battleship Potemkin should be the standard bearer for all political propaganda movies:
The filmmakers’ perplexing decision to employ pseudo-lyrical artiness to present the immediate issues surrounding DAPL seems like an arbitrary one. In the fashion of practically every Malick film, from Badlands, to Days of Heaven, to again, The New World, a young woman whispers dreamily over airy images that are somehow meant to juxtapose her aimless musings.
I found it odd, yet telling, that few of the protesters or many people deeply involved in the NODAPL movement were interviewed in-depth.
There is very little direct, practical information about ways people have or can take action to… to do what, again? Protect Native Sovereignty? To fight the police? What is it these people are protesting, again? As of now, the pipeline is up and running.
Like most political movements these days, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, the people who appear in Awake lack any motivation or clear goals. The movement, like all others, has fizzled out. In a demonstration that market-driven advertising has insidiously seeped into, even infected, all manner of thought and speech in this world, all of the current protest slogans sound like vague, ill-defined ad catch phrases. The system has already won.
Below, a representative example of the protesters who appear in Awake, with their actual captions:
Why the arty dreaminess? Awake is such an ironic title.
Awake and the entire NODAPL movement lack a universal message that will convince people to stand behind the “Water Protectors” and their goals to… stop the pipeline? Protect sacred sites? Whatever it is they are trying to do, the divisive, violent imagery in the film only serves to drive people away from their movement.
Why can’t they get the 17 million other Americans, including the police officers who abuse them, whose water supply could also be poisoned by DAPL, behind their cause?
I watched Awake for the for the first time last August on Netflix, which was around the same time I found an Indian Country Today op-ed by Terese Mailhot that reads like a treatise against terrible contemporary art made by Native Americans.
Mailhot explains that we are quick to accept bad Indian art and overlook why it’s terrible, because there are so few positive representations of Native Americans in most modern art forms.
What happens when we lower the bar for Native American art, simply because we’re desperate for any positive representations made by actual Native Americans? The article rightly points out that the sympathy vote given to bad Indian art enables, for example, copy after copy of cliche-ridden “mash-up” artwork that juxtaposes Edward Curtis-esque photos of Indians against images of modern Indians. And she rightly bemoans the half baked, male dominate “comedy” that push the kinds of misogynistic ideas that “Native Artists” claim to speak out against. Bad Indian art also treads repeatedly through worn themes like “resilience” and “decolonization,” words that are turned into mindless, cult-like mantras by the protesters in Awake.
The acceptance of Awake among political activists is largely sustained by the need to accept any sort of “Native Art” as good, even when it plods through the same cliches decried in Mailhot’s op-ed piece. It becomes more offensive than stereotypical representations of Indians created by non-Indigenous people because it gives the impression that none of us cannot make good movies, which obviously isn’t true:
You will not enter the spirit land
You will wander
Alone forever, between the winds
There have been panel discussions organized around screenings of The Seventh Fire that wished to address the societal ills that plague the tiny indigenous community depicted in the film. However, any discussion about the film should center around the way the film uses its lyrical, pseudo-documentary style to establish its Native American subjects in the same contemporary cultural landscape as other segments of American life. In order for the film to be successful, it must find a balance between a sympathy for the people it portrays and the easy way in which Native Americans are easily exploited by the filmmaking process.
As it stands, the film is meant to draw attention to the various modern problems that have helped destroy familial and tribal structures. Jack Pettibone Riccobono, the non-indigenous director of The Seventh Fire, is successful at proclaiming the place of its subjects in mainstream American life in ways that even some Native American filmmakers are incapable of doing, but the film nearly fails at breaking the bonds of its negative portrayals to rise above the misery that serves as the basis for much of its aesthetics.
Rob Brown, an Ojibwa drug dealer and gang member on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota, spends most of the film drifting in and out of a drug and alcohol-fueled haze. As such, he serves as a symbol for the once-perceived urban problems of gang violence and drug addiction that have plagued many rural places across the United States, including Indian reservations. The film follows his life up to the moments that he is sent to prison. Touching on intergenerational themes seen in many other movies about indigenous subjects, the film also follows teenager Kevin Fineday, Jr., Rob’s fellow gang member and protege, whose goal in life is to become the reservation’s number one drug dealer. The film depicts Kevin and Rob at a crossroads in which they must take the opportunity to steer away from the cycle of drugs, violence, and poverty where the film dwells.
The faux-documentary’s artiness has the negative effect of turning real people into art objects
The Seventh Fire shows its subjects caught in a system that undermines and destroys the fabric of family and tribal life. As the film opens, one man remarks, “Let’s put it this way: With Rob there is always a new low.” Some of the intimate, uncomfortably close moments in the film are filtered through a style that recalls the impressionistic, ephemeral visuals of Terrence Malick, who serves as one of the producers of The Seventh Fire. As Rob falls to various low points in the film -snorting meth, drinking himself into oblivion, sitting in prison as his son is born- the real-life moments of his journey, documented and narrated loosely as a cinematic fever dream, take precedence over underlining the systemic poverty/gang/drug/incarceration web from which many reservation people struggle escaping. The faux-documentary’s artiness has the negative effect of turning real people into art objects.
Gang tattoos, rap music, the ubiquitous Scarface poster pinned to the wall of many young drug dealers, are all part of the film’s landscape and serve as the contemporary cultural codes that replace the symbols of traditional tribal culture. Representations of indigenous people have come a long way since the once-prevalent Western genre cast Indians as noble savages. The ways in which the real-life dismal landscape of the film is shown is an advancement over past stereotypical depictions simply because, despite its objectification, The Seventh Fire still shapes Rob, Kevin and others into sympathetic characters. However, it will be easy for some viewers to define Rob, Kevin, and many of the film’s subjects in negative terms due to the criminal activity filmed, and by the pitiful wallowing in various substances that the film’s camera is never afraid to show. This negative portrayal is balanced by the detached, observational manner in which the people of the film are shown; it is the minute observations of everyday life escaping the ambient tone of the film that humanize Rob and Kevin.
No film should be obligated to explicitly underline in a literal way the root causes of systemic issues that people face, but the fugue state manner in which the events and people of The Seventh Fire are depicted runs the risk of distancing real people and their very real tragedies from society outside of the reservation. A sort of “othering” of Rob and Kevin is achieved by the film’s loose-narrative, dreamy visual style. The reservation is depicted as an isolated, alien place. A drone shot of Pine Point from above shows its small size and rural isolation. Within its layout of desolate streets there seem to be no roads leading out of the reservation. The image itself resembles an existential nightmare. This viewpoint contributes to the alien-othering achieved by Riccobono.
Ricobono has created a film whose artistic roots can be traced not only to the dreaminess of Malick’s visual style, but also to the documentary-fictional blend of filmmaking styles used to great effect by Werner Herzog. Ricobono, who was a participant in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, has appropriated that director’s tendency of using non-actors in dramatically structured moments. Bruno S. in Herzog’s Stroszek and the dwarf actors in his otherworldly Even Dwarfs Started Small come to mind. Stylistically, the film has much in common with Harmony Korine’s misunderstood, visually dynamic Gummo, a film that has also reshaped the lives of disadvantaged people into characters who occupy a rundown world that resembles an alien, apocalyptic, landscape.
Questions about exploitation arise when we consider that the film has been made by outsiders who view an economically disadvantaged, historically disenfranchised people through such a seemingly negative point of view. But like Herzog and Korine before him, Riccobono shows sympathy for the real life people whose life he shapes into narrative form. The Seventh Fire‘s negative depiction of Rob is redeemed by a dramatic arc that shows hope for his future.
Within the film’s theme about future generations of Ojibwa men breaking out of a cycle of drugs, gangs and poverty, the film reaches the sad conclusion that Rob must enter prison to understand the systemic, multigenerational web in which his people are caught. After wallowing in images that border on the kind of exploitation seen in the poverty porn pictures of Aaron Huey, the film ends with still images of a younger, healthier Rob wearing regalia and dancing at a powwow. The images are devastating when they are contrasted with the sad state in which Rob finds himself while incarcerated. In voice over, Rob talks about the Thunderbird, who flies head of his flock to warn others of an impending storm. With this ending, The Seventh Fire almost achieves a balance between the exploitation of Indians by outsiders.
–Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.
I recently had the pleasure of participating as an extra in Rod Pocowatchit’s new feature-length movie Red Hand, filmed this September and October in Wichita, KS.
Read the director’s article about the dilemmas faced by indie filmmakers! In Pocowatchit’s own words, the film is about “a man with the power to heal who time-travels from a dystopian future to save the Native American race.”
Shooting took place in a warehouse with a small crew and about two dozen extras. During the scene I participated in, dozens of Red Hand followers rally around a character (Randall Aviks, who also appeared in The Dead Can’t Dance) who proclaims that a man has traveled from the future to save Indigenous people.
In an increasingly homogenized media world, grass-roots independent filmmaking still exists and it’s something that is still worth supporting!
According to Pocowatchit, the film will be released in 2017.
Rodrick Pocowatchit’s The Dead Can’t Dance (2010) is a comedy/zombie film about a Comanche family that must band together and fight for survival as the world’s non-Native population inexplicably turns into flesh-eating zombies. The film is the first in the now-exhausted zombie genre to feature main characters that are Native American. Similar to Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, The Dead Can’t Dance uses the horror genre to broadly trace a whole history of experience involving Indians’ experiences in North America.
Comanche everyman Dax Wildhorse (writer/director Pocowatchit) is driving his teenage nephew Eddie (T.J. Williams) to college. Along for the ride is Dax’s brother and Eddie’s alcoholic, wayward father Ray (Guy Ray Pocowatchit), who’s been absent for most of Eddie’s life. The film opens at a rural Kansas rest stop when all of the people around them suddenly drop dead. In a panic, they leave, but their car runs out of gas. They wander into a nearby small town, where they come across a spaced-out white stoner named Clooney (Randall Aviks). The four men band together to fight the growing hoards of Caucasian zombies.
The Dead Can’t Dance is like a Creation Story in reverse. In a complete reversal of tragic history, non-Native people are decimated and turned into the walking dead by a disease that doesn’t affect Indians. The film is also about the destruction of the world witnessed by Indians who already have experience dealing with the End Times. The film reshapes horror conventions to talk about loss in many of its forms, which are infused with cathartic humor. Like Barnaby’s Rhymes, the film’s characters look for ways to stare loss in the face and keep charging forward.
We’re the first ones here and the last ones to leave. Now that’s poetic justice.
After the four men take refuge in an abandoned school, a bickering Ray and Clooney are sent out to search for a gas can so Eddie, Ray, and Dax can continue on their way and Clooney can reunite with the woman who left him. But they become stranded at the school when Clooney and Ray are unable to find gas. The hordes of mostly-caucasian zombies slowly close in. Not only must they fight for their own survival, but they must confront the tangled messes of their dysfunctional family life and their newly found places in a world that hasn’t existed since pre-European contact.
Ray frames the end of times in his own smart-ass way: “We’re the first ones here and the last ones to leave. Now that’s poetic justice.” Ray reaches for a high-five from Dax, who rolls his eyes in response.
The Dead Can’t Dance is also a family film in the way it focuses on the bonds between the three Comanche men. The plot is driven by the strained dynamic between Eddie, Dax, and Ray, and not zombie survivalism. Their fractured family is forced to come together and fend off a grave threat and their cohesion is the key to saving their own lives. Against the backdrop of the predominantly-white apocalypse of American society, they continue to carry around the heartbreak of the incidents that caused the rift between them, but the film is empathetic towards the characters who have severed bonds with their families and have caused others pain.
In the opening moments of the film, freeze-frames and subtitles introduce each main character by revealing a secret they are keeping from the others. Through this device we are introduced to Ray as a man secretly heartbroken over the lost relationship with his son. Ray isn’t a perfect father, but the device used to introduce each character via their secrets acts as a kind of plea for him, in light of his irresponsible nature, which has driven Eddie out of his life. The non-Native world ends all around them, but Ray and the others are given a chance for reconciliation in its ruins.
The film is full of subtle, sublime Termite-Art moments that eat away at its functionally low-end aesthetic to reveal its sincerity in small, fleeting moments: while Ray and Clooney nervously stare down a school hallway full of zombies lurching towards them, they very briefly pause the film’s narrative to talk about being left by women they love. It hurts, Clooney reveals, dejectedly, and Ray agrees. The moment is short-lived and will go unnoticed by most viewers, but it sums up the turmoil the characters dwell in and ties into the film’s themes of forgiveness. Clooney alludes to a bad relationship with the woman he is trying to reunite with, and Ray’s immature nature and estrangement from Eddie speaks volumes about the nature of the relationship with the woman who left him. They are flawed men, but misunderstood. We’re never shown the mistakes that destroyed the relationships they are trying to bring back to life, but we do see both men reaching towards forgiveness, trying to pick up the pieces.
In the beginning of the narrative we are introduced to Dax via subtitles that say he is secretly sick. Another fleeting moment alluding to this secret is equally great in its own peculiar, almost unnoticeable way. After Ray and Clooney leave the abandoned school to find gas, Dax nurses Eddie back to health after a diabetic attack. During the scene, Dax tries to convince Eddie that his father does love him, despite his absence. Eddie questions the apocalyptic events unfolding around them, and asks his uncle Dax if the world is coming to an end. Dax tells Eddie, no, and, “Besides, you’ll be dancing long after I’m gone,” a statement that puzzles Eddie. Dax then tells him the only reassuring thing that comes to mind: “Whatever’s happening around us, there’s a reason for it”. Something else looms in his mind. The moment is filled with uncertainty. We look back on the moment when we realize he is keeping his sickness a secret from everyone else. This is the film’s other, authentically revealing moment, breaking loose from the intentionally-or-not slapstick, amateurish style of the film.
The film’s low-end visual style serves its comic tone quite well and emphasizes the inherently ridiculous nature of the zombie film and its cliches. The extras’ caked-on white makeup make them resemble the zombies of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Some of the undead also have veins stenciled onto their faces. The obvious artifice of the film’s makeup FX creates a sense of alienation from the work, transforming the zombie menace and the very notion of the End Times into a kind of joke.
The appearance of Stupid (Wade Hampton), a friendly, dim-witted zombie who maintains a fixation on a handheld radio and later becomes a key character, is a parody of Day of the Dead‘s Bub, a zombie who was experimented on by scientists in that film. In an obvious way, Day of the Dead tried to garner sympathy for Bub by giving him living-human characteristics, feelings, and memories. However, Day of the Dead takes a darkly cynical view of actual, living humanity and its capability to do good in a dying world. Romero wanted to create sympathy for walking cannibalistic corpses while showing contempt for the living members of humanity, which seems like a confusing moral framework to work within. A film ever-hopeful about the dying world, expressed through the notion that surviving indigenous people will inherit the earth, the presence of Stupid in Dead Can’t Dance thumbs its nose at past films’ use of the zombie movie as a vent for the cynicism of filmmakers like Romero. The Dead Can’t Dance is one of the few modern zombie movies with a hopeful view of the post-apocalyptic world.
Having Native people immune to the virus wasn’t just a comical device. I also wanted to comment on how Native culture was massacred when the European settlers arrived. They did bring rampant disease that wiped out Native people. The outbreak of the zombie virus in the movie reversed all that.
Writer/Director Pocowatchit uses the zombie film in a way that is informed by history. He said in our interview that the question, “What would reverse the situation?” involving the circumstances of indigenous populations being wiped out by disease, and, “what would wipe the slate clean?” were the inspirations for the story, in regard to reconciling the mistreatment of Native Americans in boarding schools and for the use of diseases to kill them off.
A prop history textbook found in the abandoned school introduces the theme of historical revisionism through Pocowatchit’s Comanche perspective. The cover has the title History Re-Written. The film highlights the poor relationship between indigenous people and the educational systems established by colonizing entities. The decision to have the main characters take refuge in an abandoned school was not an arbitrary decision, according to Pocowatchit. The film has a similar attitude to Rhymes for Young Ghouls in regard to Indians’ status in their respective country’s educational system. The Dead Can’t Dance places its three Comanche characters in the school to underline the mistreatment of Indians in American’s educational system while tying historical allusions about disease decimating indigenous populations to the threat of infection in a zombie film. As a filmmaker conscious of how genre elements can be bent in order to conform to a director’s peculiar vision, Pocowatchit knows that the zombie film has been used to comment on societal aspects since their inception: “Having the film set in a school was a very conscious decision. The great thing about zombie films is that they’re ripe for commentary, so yes, I did want to speak about how Native people were mistreated in the mainstream school system and that history was taught wrong.”
The film is loaded with references to history, especially in the anxiety-ridden fantasies of Eddie, in which he is being humiliated by a teacher for not knowing which state was the last to grant the right to vote for Native Americans. Pocowatchit had clear goals in mind for using the zombie movie to address history: “Having Native people immune to the virus wasn’t just a comical device. I also wanted to comment on how Native culture was massacred when the European settlers arrived. They did bring rampant disease that wiped out Native people. The outbreak of the zombie virus in the movie reversed all that.”
The world in The Dead Can’t Dance comes to an end, but the film is hopeful about what comes after it’s all gone. The three Comanche men who witness the end of the world around them are already survivors. Dax, Eddie, and Ray come from a people, the indigenous population of North America, poised to survive the destruction of their colonizers’ world because they are the kinds of dystopian survivors Sidner Larson described in his theory of Post Apocalyptic Stress Syndrome. Larson wrote that Indians are the only people to have seen the end of the human world. Contemporary Indians are only several generations removed from the ancestors who saw their tribal cultures destroyed by colonial expansion, war, and disease. Their descendants are feeling the effects of these catastrophes in the forms of alcoholism, poverty, crime, the dissolution of family ties, all of which, according to Larson, are all a kind of PTSD that reverberates throughout time. In this way, the three men struggle with the ripple effects of the end of the world. The survivors bring knowledge necessary for propagating the next civilization. The three principal Indian characters’ use of the Comanche language throughout the film makes them vital for bringing valuable knowledge into the Newly Indigenous World. As a filmmaker, Pocowatchit is aware that the end of one world is not equal to the end of existence, as long as we have people to carry traditions to other generations. This reasoning preserves the Comanche language in the contemporary world. Pocowatchit says, “I… liked that society and mankind lived [on] because of the graciousness and knowledge of Native people.” Their use of the Comanche language shows the importance of cultural survival.
I want to tell contemporary stories about Native people living in today’s world, even if it’s in a zombie movie. Especially if it’s in a zombie movie.”
The characters in The Dead Can’t Dance and Rhymes for Young Ghouls walk across the land of the dead, and the survival of characters in each film is meant as an imperative for all indigenous people. Rhymes had a mournful tone, and while its protagonist did survive, there was no hope of a better world to look forward to. That film suggests survival for its own sake in a world where indigenous people have nothing left to fight for. The Dead Can’t Dance would be a creation story for those reclaiming a world once lived in by their ancestors. As a film, it gives Pocowatchit an opportunity to establish the relevance of Indians on the pop culture landscape. Like many indigenous filmmakers, he has the tendency to use the film medium to consciously establish a place for Native Americans in the American moviegoing conscience. In regard to films by and about Indians, Pocowatchit says, “When I see something that I connect to on a personal level, it makes me feel valid, that I count. One of my goals is to see Native people represented more in mainstream pop culture. I want to tell contemporary stories about Native people living in today’s world, even if it’s in a zombie movie. Especially if it’s in a zombie movie.”
The Dead Can’t Dance shows that hope for Indians lies in the rubble of our world’s destruction.
Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.
The Dead Can’t Dance can be streamed for FREE on skinsplex.com, a new distribution platform for current films by and about Native Americans.