“Neither Wolf nor Dog,” opening Friday on limited release at the Yakima Cinemas, stars the Yakima-born actor Christopher Sweeney in a film about a man’s journey into the heart of Lakota culture.
The Yakima premiere is part of a targeted distribution of the film begun more than a year ago and billed as the longest theatrical release of 2017.
The movie was seven years in the making for the film’s director, producer, cinematographer, co-scripter and editor, the Scotland-born Steven Lewis Simpson, and the third film he’s shot on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
“The most beautiful, humbling thing for me is I’ve never been anywhere where doors have more of a right to be closed in my face,” Simpson said in a phone interview on Monday. “Yet I’ve never been welcomed more anywhere in the world.”
Based on the award-winning novel and co-scripted by Kent Nerburn, “Neither Wolf nor Dog” was financed through three different Kickstarter campaigns that pulled together $90,000, about a third of which went towards an 18-day, two person-crew shoot.
That’s a fraction of what it takes to make most features, but you wouldn’t know it by the look of the movie, which beautifully captures the contrasts of the reservation’s vast landscape with the extreme poverty of its inhabitants.
It's a film worth seeing on the big screen, and not just for its aesthetic qualities. As Simpson noted from screenings across the US, the story has an emotional component for audiences, who find themselves “deeply moved, and they’re walking out of the theatre satisfied.”
“Silence is stronger than words”
For Simpson, this has everything to do with the film’s diminutive yet captivating star, the 95-year-old Dave Bald Eagle. “They’re falling madly in love with Dave Bald Eagle’s character, and that doesn’t have to do with budget or even with craft. It has to do with this man and what he represents.”
With a parallel life experience, Bald Eagle fully inhabits the character of Dan, the wizened and wry Lakota elder who summons the writer Nerburn (Sweeney, matching his co-star’s authenticity with an admirably sincere performance) to the reservation to compose a book based on the elder’s vanishing wisdom and living history.
We are only nine minutes into the film when Nerburn heeds the mysterious call and sets out in his red pickup truck from Minnesota to the Dakota plains. If the set-up feels a bit quick, the unhurried pace of the rest of the film compensates.
Nerburn is a young dad mourning the recent death of his father. Dan is grieving his own son’s death and, moreover, seems to carry the weight of the historical suffering of his people on his shoulders.
Both men are on a journey, at once personal and communal, one inching towards death and the other seemingly finding new life, as they set out across the reservation with Dan’s nephew Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), an uncompromising Indian suspicious of Nerburn’s presence.
It’s an uncertainty Nerburn shares, quitting repeatedly even as Dan keeps pulling him back in. “Nothing more suspect than a white man trying to tell an old Indian’s story,” he riffs.
“Listen before you can learn to see”
“Neither Wolf nor Dog,” an expression signifying the hazy identity of a person living among a people not his or her own, illustrates how cross-cultural communication is about more than just language.
Grover and others repeatedly admonish Nerburn for his cultural missteps, his erroneous presumptions, his frivolous first-world complaints.
When Grover suspects Nerburn of buying into a romanticized view of his Native subject, he warns: “You’re writing a book about Indians. Put it all in. Old man ain’t no show dog.” It’s a line that underscores this film’s intense desire to offer a clear-minded portrayal of a people and a place.
If it stumbles in this aim, it’s in privileging the Native experience and perhaps preying too hard on ‘white guilt.’ No matter how justified, the binary worldview may feel heavy-handed to some audiences.
And Dan is a show dog here, in some ways. As is Nerburn, in this tale. Archetypes of the ‘wise Indian’ and the ‘well-meaning White Man,’ the two symbolize their communities as a whole and the deep need on both sides to face the past and reconcile the future.
“I need to learn to forgive,” Dan tells Nerburn in a moving climactic scene at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre, a scene Simpson says Bald Eagle, who died less than two years after the film was made, largely improvised.
“It was my people that did this to your people,” Nerburn replies. “I feel responsible.”
Dan urges Nerburn to go out and tell his people what he’s learned. With his original book, the real-life Nerburn did just that. And with this film, Simpson has done it again.