Awake: All politics, no aesthetics. 

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.

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Indigenous Man (right) explains Awake‘s visual style to an impatient cop (left).

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.

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Aerial footage at night shows a pixilized blur of militarized cops firing rubber bullets and shooting water canons at freezing protesters. Whatever the NODAPL movement stood for is lost in the noise created by Awake‘s images.

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:

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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:

 

Spiritual Flight in ‘Ancestor Eyes’

Ancestor Eyes, a 2008 short film by Kalani Queypo, is currently streaming on Skinsplex.com, a free streaming site that features short and feature-length works by Native American filmmakers. What is most notable about the 19-minute short, starring Tantoo Cardinal and Rulan Tangen, is its exploration of the journey one of its main characters takes on her way to the afterlife. The film has a genuinely strong spiritual bent that is common in movies by and about Indigenous people, which is rarely seen in current non-Indigenous cinema.

Willa (Tangen) is bed-ridden and suffers from a disease that is never identified in the film. Her mother Verna (Cardinal), a youthful older woman who takes care of her and spends her days hiking in the wilderness and films scenes from nature with her video camera that her daughter later watches in the confines of her drab, darkened bedroom. The film opens with Verna and her love interest Charlie (Raoul Trujillo) going on a hike, where they film an eagle soaring high above them. In the first moments of the film, we see Verna and Charlie flirting with each other as Verna films the eagle, an obvious but nice visual reference for the film’s theme of spiritual flight. In her bedroom, weak and bedridden, Willa watches the footage shot by her mother, and smiles when she hears the flirtatious banter between Charlie and Verna from behind the camera. Willa’s only means of pleasure seemingly comes from watching the tapes her mother makes and through the possibility that her mother and Charlie are possibly in love. The tapes are meant to make the dying Willa feel a connection to the outside world. But as the film progresses, we learn that it is Verna who must come to terms with the inevitability of death brought on by Willa’s disease.

Verna takes care of the frail, sick, much younger Willa, but Ancestor Eyes is about a dying person who helps a grieving person heal. When Verna returns from a hike with Charlie and discovers that Willa has thrown away her medication, Verna becomes upset with her daughter, and at her wit’s end, demands to know what to do in order to help Willa. In response, Willa tells her to “drop the business about the pills,” and to continue to see Charlie. Willa is oddly content with her illness. Verna films an outside world that she wishes her daughter could experience, but Willa is more concerned with Verna finding enjoyment in the world she captures with her camcorder. Without outwardly expressing it, Willa has come to terms with dying. During a key moment of reconciliation in the film, Willa says to her mother, “Can I tell you something, mom? You did good.” Note the look of elation of Verna’s face in close-up during this scene.

And so begins Willa’s journey to the next life. Her mother tells her the story of the keeper of the flowers, which is about a little girl who sits under the quarter moon one night and is visited by the Sky People, who explain to the little girl how all of the different plants of the world, when grown, will bring healing to her people. The Sky People give the little girl a magical satchel of seeds and two gourds of water, which she must carry up a mountain. The little girl accepts the difficult burden of carrying the sack of seeds and the gourds of water up the mountain, her path illuminated by the light of the moon. The little girl must plant the seeds until the entire world is covered, as Verna narrates the story to Willa, “in a lush landscape of healing plants.” There was a place for every seed and every drop of water. The little girl gave of herself, creating a blanket of nourishment for the world. The little girl would never return to her family. Willa’s eventual demise is visualized at the end of the film in a simple way that is striking.

I was there when she found her way to this earth. I give her back to the sky.”

In their last moments together, Verna talks about the moment that Willa was born: “When you were born, you knew too much. You looked at me through the eyes of your ancestors. I felt so lucky. I got to witness your spirit coming into this earth.” The film closes with reconciliation and acceptance. We hear Verna communicating with the hereafter in voice-over narration, “I’m calling out to all my relations. I give her back to you, the girl with the eyes of the ancestors. The girl who knew too much. Make a song for her to follow. Make a path for her to travel. I was there when she found her way to this earth. I give her back to the sky.”

Ancestor Eyes was made during the beginning of a growing tradition among Indigenous American filmmakers whose expression of spirituality underlines the belief that our existence on this earth is only part of a larger journey, that this journey is circular and not linear in nature; there is no end, only a continuation. As the film ends, Verna says in voice-over, “I am now the woman who knows too much. Now I’m the woman with the eyes of the ancestors.” Like the films of Sterlin Harjo (particularly in Four Sheets to the Wind [2007] and Barking Water [2009]) and in Jeff Barnaby‘s Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), we’re shown that life and death are not separate from each other. While Willa’s death is presented as a tragedy in this particular world, Verna realizes that she too will one day continue onto the next part of her journey. Willa’s role in the film became that of someone who gives solace to the grieving. Like the little girl in the keeper of the flowers story, Willa’s demise gives her the opportunity to let others heal.


-Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.