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:

 

‘The Seventh Fire’: Indians as Objects

seventh_fire_xlg-708x1024There 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.

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Rob Brown in The Seventh Fire. Credit: theseventhfire.com

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.

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The Seventh Fire‘s post-apocalyptic landscape. Credit: theseventhfire.com.

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.