MOVIES/Ed Rampell

Josh Fox’s Latest Film Captures the Struggle at Standing Rock

Josh Fox, who was Oscar nominated for the 2010 anti-frackJosh Fox’s Latest Film Captures
the Struggle at Standing Rock

Josh Fox, who was Oscar nominated for the 2010 anti-fracking documentary GasLand, is back with a new hard-hitting film, a collaboration with Standing Rock tribal members and other filmmakers. Released online on Earth Day, Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock is about the intense struggle of indigenous and other “water protectors” against the Dakota Access Pipeline, located near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

With soaring cinematography, Fox graphically depicts what’s at stake, as an aerial shot reveals construction on the pipeline as it approaches the Missouri River. According to the film, this is the source of water for eighteen million people — hence anxiety about the risk of oil spills. As Native narrator Floris White Bull puts it, the occupiers fought to “stop the black snake and start the healing of the continent.”

The water protectors’ occupation and protests placed them on a collision course with highly militarized security forces. White Bull calls it “the same story as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but it’s today.” (Custer’s Last Stand took place in 1876.) The melees in North Dakota—which Fox and his two co-directors were smack dab in the middle of—are vividly depicted in this 84-minute film. I interviewed Fox via phone on May 10—the same day a small Dakota Access Pipeline oil spill was reported in South Dakota, 200 miles south of Standing Rock.

Q: How did Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock come about?

Fox: A number of us met on the frontlines at Standing Rock when we were documenting there: myself, [filmmaker] Myron Dewey, [Oscar and Emmy nominee] James Spione, [Standing Rock tribal member] Doug Good Feather, and Floris White Bull, Lakota/Pueblo from Standing Rock. There was camaraderie among reporters on the frontline. I realized there was the potential to make a film as a collaboration, and they thought that would be a great idea.

Awake was financed through charitable donations. None of the directors took a salary. Amy Ziering, the amazing [Oscar nominated and Emmy winning] producer of The Invisible War, and Lauren Taschen, of the book publisher, came in as executive producers to raise the budget of under $100,000.

All the proceeds from the movie go to an indigenous media fund to support young indigenous filmmakers to tell their stories. I shot with a Panasonic HPX170, the same camera I used for Gasland Part II and How To Let Go of the World.

Q: Tell us about third-segment director Myron Dewey, who says onscreen: “It’s hard to be indigenous.”

Fox: He’s a former firefighter, very brave. An indigenous filmmaker from near Nevada who went to Standing Rock for months. His production company is called Digital Smoke Signals; they were livestreaming from Standing Rock every day, flying their drones over the pipeline and protests. They got lots of followers on Facebook because they outperformed the mass media. Where CNN, MSNBC and Fox News failed to bring you the stories, Digital Smoke Signals succeeded. The Indigenous Environmental Network succeeded. The outfits that were on the ground, we were bringing things independently that the mass media was reporting.

Q: What’s the current situation at Standing Rock today?

Josh Fox: The pipeline has been completed and it’s a matter of days before the oil is flowing. There is a legal process underway. There is a small water protectors’ encampment at Cheyenne River. The Trump Administration overthrew the rule of law and decided to go against the Obama Administration’s ordering an environmental impact study, which should have stopped the pipeline from a year to 16 or 18 months.

The Trump Administration came in with very heavy military force, as you see in Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock. It’s a deep injustice — violating basic civil, human rights — that does not bode well for Americans, [who] should be concerned with the bullying tactics the Trump administration has deployed, becoming the oil industry’s armed wing.

There are water protector and indigenous sovereignty camps springing up all over the United States. The filmmakers’ message is hopeful. Standing Rock is not a defeat, in that our movement is spreading across the continent “like cotton seeds in the wind,” as narrator and co-writer Floris White Bull puts it.

Q: Were you injured at Standing Rock?

Fox: No. I was tear-gassed, nothing major. Erin Schrode was shot with a rubber bullet in the back in the middle of an interview. I was standing right next to her. That was shocking, very, very upsetting. It was one of the most important, difficult days: Nov. 2, my second day at Standing Rock. We went there together. We heard people were shot in the water and we went to the front line to interview people.

When I watched police firing teargas on peaceful protesters, I was in tears. I never saw anything quite like it or such bravery, from the water protectors. All of a sudden, I hear this “Pow!” and look over and people are fleeing from the shots and I see Erin, limping away, clearly in pain, wincing, crying. I thought, Oh, my God! Why did they shoot Erin? This is the dumbest thing they can do. This is a CNN correspondent, who has an ABC News contract, a California congressional candidate for the Democratic Party.

Everyone there, water protectors, journalists, were at risk because it was out-of-control. The police were very aggressive, often shooting rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, teargas, concussion grenades, pepper spray at nonviolent, peaceful protesters. You see in the film water protectors telling police “We love you.” Then they get maced. You feel a deep sense of outrage watching that. The police were out-of-control, brazen, violent. They threw a concussion grenade into a crowd and blew apart the arm of a young girl, about 19, named Sophia Wilansky. Pepper spray and mace, that kind of force at point-blank range, can be deadly.

Q: How about private security?

Fox: It’s very hard to tell the difference. They’re wearing military garb, camouflage, body armor, flash shield helmets, with AK-47s, grenade launchers, huge sound cannons that can deafen people with piercing noise. They look like they’re in Fallujah or Afghanistan. These were faceless, nameless, militarized police deployed against peaceful protesters. They were not identifiable because they had their flash shields on over their faces and their nametags removed. They were clearly there to protect the pipeline, not the people.

We called [security forces] in the film “the ideological and genealogical descendants of General Custer” for being so brutal. These are the kinds of things that happen when governors are serving the oil companies and not the people. The charges being levied against the water protectors in most cases were outrageous and unjustifiable. Water protectors were arrested at peaceful ceremonies for simply sitting on the ground and praying. People were ripped out of ceremonies in sweat lodges in the middle of prayer and thrown into dog kennels for days on end.

Q: Were drones used for Awake’s aerial cinematography?

Fox: Myron Dewey is a very famous drone pilot whose drone footage is used throughout the film. [Part-Lakota, Rosebud Sioux Tribe member] Prolific The Rapper, who performs in the film and was one of the drone pilots, was charged with flying a drone too close to the crowd, something nonsense like that. You can see in the film footage of him landing a drone and bringing it in and how far it is from the crowd. The Morton County Sheriff’s Department issued a warrant for his arrest — he’s facing seven years in prison. These are the tactics they use against our reporters.

Q: What’s the significance that in the 21st century, 127 years after the Wounded Knee Massacre, “Indian Wars” are still being fought in Indian Country?

Fox: That’s really well-put. We’re seeing the end of that corrupt ideology of the oppression of Native Americans. We need to see an end to the rape of the environment and war against indigenous people. The indigenous sovereignty movement binds together with environmental, climate, and justice movements. These are going to bring about the end of that system. You’re seeing that rising up happening now and Standing Rock is a very important part of that.

To see Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock go to:

Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting the ongoing Ten Films That Shook the World series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November at the L.A. Workers Center in Los Angeles, Calif. For info:

From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2017

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