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On ‘On Sacred Ground’, the sound of white guilt drowns out the drama of Standing Rock

I’ve often wondered what a fictional film set in Standing Rock, at the height of the 2016 Dakota Access pipeline resistance, would look like. who are forced to work together to fight the pipeline? How about a coming of age story about a native who reconnects trying to find his identity through protest? Or a romantic comedy where two indigenous people fall in love surrounded by state violence and chaos?

The next feature film on holy ground, choose neither of these. Rather, it follows the story of a (white) journalist and a (white) oil company executive who “find themselves on opposite sides of the fight” during the construction of the controversial oil pipeline. As for the indigenous activists who led the actual protest effort on the North Dakota reservation, their narratives are pushed into the background to allow the main characters to plunge into the depths of white guilt.

on holy ground It’s not the first film to focus on Standing Rock. There have been some documentaries about the protests: Awake: A Standing Rock Dream, co-directed by Myron Dewey, for example. The 2017 television series Vice, Raiseincluded two full-length episodes, Holy water other red power. Other complete documentaries included End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock* other Black Snake Killaz: A #NoDAPL Story. But to date, there has been surprisingly little “major” work on the subject, and arguably little self-reflection as a nation. This, despite a growing chorus of voices demanding clean water, indigenous stewardship of natural resources, and climate action, all central issues of the climate crisis, magnified through the actions of indigenous peoples in Standing Rock.

on holy ground touches on these ideas, but because the story is told from a white perspective, the needs of white characters and narratives inevitably trump those of indigenous stakeholders. How do you begin to understand the lessons of NODAPL in a film set during the 2016 protests when the main protagonists are white? Given the explosion of indigenous-made film and television production occurring at multiple levels of the entertainment industry, on holy ground The decision to stick to a colonial first glance is at best disconcerting and at worst insulting. One must wonder why the filmmakers did not read the room.

The scenario is as follows: Daniel is an exhausted journalist dealing with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder due to his experience as a reporter covering the war in Iraq. He sleepwalks through his days in Lancaster, Ohio, struggling to fit in with those around him. lethargically played by William MapotherDaniel is distant and inattentive towards his wife, Julie, who is expecting a baby. He drives a beat-up Ford and lives in a modest house (since he’s a journalist, it’s safe to say he’s not drowning in riches).

Then comes a phone call from a posh editor in Houston, played by Francis Fisher. She tells him that she discovered her talent based on her previous work and wants to assign him to a story at Standing Rock for him (fictional). houston journal. In reality, Fisher scouted and recruited Daniel based on his low credit score (438), the knowledge that his last car was repossessed, and the fact that he is a Republican. The paper has oil and gas funding and a large research budget, and Fisher thinks he can pressure Daniel to write a pro-oil article about the pipeline protests.

Grateful for the job, Daniel launches into his new assignment on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. He’s doing it for the money, no doubt, but it’s clear he’s also looking for some kind of clarity in his life: what exactly it could be, he doesn’t seem to know.

Once at Standing Rock, the plot becomes pretty predictable. Daniel meets a sleazy middleman tasked with guiding him to write that great pro-oil story. somehow, Mariel Hemingway blends into the narrative as a frontline activist, much like Irene Bedard, who plays a matriarchal-type activist named Mary Singing Crow. Daniel receives a crash course in acting at the makeshift camp and gradually comes to realize the importance of the story she is writing and the nuances she demands. Needless to say, the story he uncovers is not as oil-friendly as the financiers of his employer would have you believe.

movies like on holy ground they mean well, and they have meant well for a while. I remember the well-intentioned 2017 movie neither wolf nor dog, where the white protagonist spends the whole time wincing after learning the “true” story of how the United States has treated indigenous peoples, a revelation that, when presented to indigenous viewers or people with minimal education , elicits a “duh?” reaction. Here, William Mapother’s Daniel does much the same thing, standing in for white America, wearing a look of confusion and pain for most of the film.

Characters like Daniel are designed as stand-ins for WHITE GUILT. Ostensibly, they bear some of the brunt of America’s historic and current human rights abuses and responsibility for the crushing climate crisis, but that form of atonement leaves little room for nuance when the narrative favors didacticism over factual representation. Many viewers may agree with the idea that America has an unhealthy love for oil, but do we need another movie about how white people feel guilty about it, especially one set in one of the most important indigenous events in history? recent? in a place where the images of resistance are still engraved in our collective memory? Can a film about Standing Rock without indigenous people in the forefront be successful on any level? And perhaps most importantly, can white people make movies like this and not make them about themselves? Of course not.

Real Indian protesters at Standing Rock demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images, Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

While co-writers/directors Joshua and Rebecca Harrel Tickell have crafted a story about the price we pay for oil, unfortunately it’s based on hackneyed tropes of white guilt and white redemption, reinterpreting that old story we’ve seen so many times before, where a a white man gets caught up in an “exotic” situation and, with the help of ancient indigenous teachings, “comes off the reservation”, has an epiphany and finds his truth. In fact, at one point in the film, Frances Fisher’s character yells at David Arquette’s Elliot, “He’s gone off the reservation!” The line was so predictable that I was able to say it at the same time as her, even on first viewing. I may or may not have howled in amusement.

In the end, the film leans into the historical record: Indian activists are arrested, their tipis are set on fire, and a lone tear falls on the face of an Indian as he watches the destruction unfold. Daniel, for his part, looks sadly at his laptop from the comfort of his own home, thus ending his journey. He feels condescending to see the Indians fight bravely and get punished for it, while Daniel returns to his family, files a story about it, and cashes a check.

I know I’d rather see other versions of the Dakota Access Pipeline and all the things that happened there: the love, the loss, the challenges, the inspiration. But I want to see the indigenous people, the ones who made the journey there, tell these stories. I personally know many people who went to Standing Rock in the fight for clean water. And unlike Daniel, once I close my laptop, I know they still exist.

*This article has been corrected to indicate End of the Line: The Women of Standing Rock it is a complete documentary


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