As the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline has gone from bad to worse to hopeful to tentative, dozens of documentarians have descended on the Sioux reservation — 34 teams, according to the tribal database. And while it’s no longer uncommon for major news events to attract multiple filmmakers, some members of the horde in North Dakota seemed to need a lesson in where they were.
What’s happening at Standing Rock is not just about history and tradition but also spirituality, said Josué Rivas, a photographer and filmmaker of Native American descent, who has helped the Sioux work with the news media. The tribe objects to the pipeline, which would run from North Dakota to Illinois, in part because it would desecrate ancestral lands, and its protest is a form of prayer. “It might seem cool to take a photograph of the chief in his headdress, but it’s so freaking disrespectful,” Mr. Rivas said. “Respect the feathers, you know?”
Respecting the feathers has never been a major concern of American cinema, and the throng of film projects at Standing Rock has provoked a debate about cultural appropriation among documentary makers. At issue is who gets to tell the story and who gets resources to tell that story, especially when Native Americans lack mainstream opportunities in Hollywood.
“At one point do we get to create our own narrative?” asked Heather Rae, a filmmaker of Cherokee descent whose as-yet-untitled project on the protest is being made with the support of the Sundance Institute.
Mr. Rivas said, “The difference in having indigenous folks filming it is that Natives know what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
The news media and video bloggers have a place at Standing Rock, Ms. Rae said, but in her view, many nonindigenous feature documentary makers are direct descendants of “the anthropologists” — which Ms. Rae uses as a term of derision — who have long relegated Native American subjects to the equivalent of a “human zoo.”
“We look at it with different responsibilities,” she said. “One guy on our team overheard a non-native filmmaker say, ‘This is really going to make my career.’ This is different from speaking to one’s descendants and generations to come. We’re speaking to something that echoes into the future.” Ms. Rae and Ben Dupris are producing the film and Cody Lucich is directing.
It’s not the first time the nonfiction-film world has been roiled by debate over the question “Who gets to tell the story?” The documentarian Alex Gibney said he received criticism recently for his 2014 film “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown.”
“I have no response except to say: James Brown’s black. I’m white. I did the best I could,” Mr. Gibney said. “My view is, anybody who wants to have a say should have a say, and at the end it’s the good storyteller who gets listened to.”
“At the same time,” he cautioned, “there’s the question of who has the opportunity to tell the story.”
Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Association, said that cultural appropriation was certainly an issue for nonfiction films but that “there are not enough sources of funding to allow those native voices to tell stories and develop the talent within that community.”
Another organization devoted to increased Native American visibility is Vision Maker Media, financed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its executive director, Shirley Sneve, said things didn’t always work out the way you expect: “The Seventh Fire” (2015), made by an outsider, she said, included very intimate portrayals of drug abuse by Native American people. “I sometimes wonder if the director got them to open up to him more” because of the subject matter, she said.
Vision Maker has a mandate to tell Native American stories, she said, “though we fund people of all races based on the quality of their proposals. But we notice that Native American-led projects have a different sensibility.” They tend to put subjects in historical context, she said, and understand nuances of custom and language, even if they’re not fluent in the languages.
But the differences, largely, seem to be about respect. “A lot of these filmmakers are trust-fund kids from Silver Lake who want to wear their fur hats and do something fun,” Caitlin Kazepis said, referring to the trendy Los Angeles neighborhood. She said she considered herself an outsider, although “being from Alaska, I’m embraced.” She was researching films on oil pipelines when she found herself working for CNN at Standing Rock. When that project was over, she stayed.
“I have been welcomed and claimed by Natives as one of them, based on not what I am but who they have perceived me to be,” Ms. Kazepis said, “which is atypical and a huge honor. So the responsibility that I have to portray this culture is not something I take lightly.”
Not everyone sees it that way. Ms. Rae said: “There are only a couple of non-native filmmakers who’ve been there since the beginning. There are others who have dropped in for a short amount of time and then put up GoFundMe appeals. We go: ‘Who is this person? We’ve never even seen this guy.’”
The drop-in practice isn’t limited to non-Native Americans: Lynn Currier, who is of Micmac and Pennacook-Abenaki heritage, said she had gotten “enough for a great film.” How long was she at Standing Rock? “A week.” Mr. Lucich, on the other hand, has been there since August, and “so far I have been maced four times, grabbed twice but never arrested, tear-gassed a dozen times and had grenades go off at my feet.”
Neither suffering nor time spent necessitates superior cinema, of course, and several filmmakers have said that what’s at stake at Standing Rock is larger than the question of who gets to tell the story. Todd Darling, a documentary maker who isn’t Native American, first went to Standing Rock in September and has produced a number of reports from the scene.
“Regarding cultural appropriation, there’s no question about it, and I don’t like it,” Mr. Darling said, “but this is probably the most complex and important event in the United States in a long time, and the scope of this thing has outrun any preconceived notion of how it can be produced.”
“What’s called for is a collaboration,” he said. “It’s just too big. Too big.”*