Riley Keough is making her directorial debut at Cannes, with a film she co-directed with her business partner, Gina Gammell. They’re premiering War Pony in the Un Certain Regard section of the film festival, a film they made about young men growing up on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Keough and Gammell, who are not Native, are also co-writers on the script. Let’s unpack this, because there is a big write up in The Wrap about Keough and her new film, and it’s basically a justification of two white women rocking up to a rez and making a movie about the Native people who live there. The piece is behind a paywall, so I’m going to quote thoroughly for you.
First up, the background. Keough was making American Honey with Andrea Arnold in 2015 when she met two Oglala Lakota men from Pine Ridge, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, hired as day players for the film while shooting in South Dakota. Their scene got shifted, so they ended up spending the day hanging out and talking, and it sounds like a real friendship was born between them, and Keough, along with Gammell, would make trips back to South Dakota on, let’s call them friendly fact-finding missions. She was taken with the stories Sioux Bob and Reddy would tell about growing up on the rez, their “war stories”, and over time, these storytelling sessions turned into writing sessions. The four of them ended up writing a script together inspired by Sioux Bob and Reddy’s experiences on the rez.
Okay, fine. Riley Keough made some friends while making a movie, and that led to collaborating on a script. But what about directing said film? Gammell says, “I don’t think was ever a conscious thought, ‘Let’s go direct a movie together.’” But ultimately, they decided to do it, to “facilitate the [I]ndigenous voices” whose stories they were telling. Gammell continues, “It was important that we didn’t get in the middle of it. […] That our voices were not part of the writing process or the filmmaking process. It was really important that we merely existed as vessels to enable people to tell their own stories.”
Giving Keough and Gammell the benefit of the doubt, let’s assume they have the best, purest intentions, and reading the interview, it does sound like they’re aware of how loaded it is in 2022 for two white people to make a movie about the contemporary Native experience in America. Keough calls it “very complicated” (right after this quote, The Wrap includes that Elvis Presley, Keough’s grandfather, believed he had Cherokee blood on his mother’s side of the family, as many Southerners believe they do, always, amazingly, on their mother’s side). So they are aware of the massive spring-loaded traps they’re stepping on with this film, and to be fair, they do seem very sensitive to the issues and implications of tackling this subject as outsiders.
But you can’t ever really divorce the author from their story. Every story told is as much about the teller as it is the story itself. People want their films to be deeply personal expressions of the self, right up until they know they’re making a film they probably shouldn’t make. Then it’s “I’m just a vessel” this and “I wanted to make sure this got done right” that. You know who else wanted to make sure things got done right? Willi White, a Lakota filmmaker from Pine Ridge who received a Sundance fellowship in 2017.
Of his experience producing War Pony, he says, “At first, I was unsure if I really wanted to be part of it. […] A lot of people have come to Pine Ridge to make movies about the [I]ndigenous experience, and it’s very clichéd, problematic storytelling: ‘Oh, there’s poverty, there’s addiction, all these things are wrong with the community, poor Native people, boo hoo.’ With no real sense of the diversity of the community, or the roots of those issues in colonization and the mass genocide of [I]ndigenous people and federal laws taking away language and culture and all these things. They never contextualize stories like that. So when they say, ‘Oh, Willi, go see these white filmmakers,’ I become very suspicious.”
But he goes on to say, “And this story is tough and rooted in this space of struggle, too. But as I saw Riley and Gina’s relationship with Frank and Bill and the crew, how they worked with these kids (actors) and how they brought in our community, it allowed me to feel safe. I think they’ve been really intentional about building relationships in the community over a long time. And to hear feedback from some of the young actors who resonated with the story and talked about how it made them feel visualized, that also brought me in. It made me think, ‘OK, this is important. These voices we’re hearing in this film are important.’”
This is the Native stamp of approval that makes the whole thing okay, I guess, and I wonder if anyone bothered asking Willi White if he truly believes Riley Keough and Gina Gammell were the people to make this movie, or if he felt like this was the best it was going to get. I also wonder if Keough and Gammell ever stopped to ask White, the Sundance fellow filmmaker, if maybe he’d like a crack at directing the film. I can understand Keough and Gammell being passionate about telling their friends’ stories, but did it ever once occur to them to look around for a Native filmmaker to take the reins? They co-wrote the script with Native writers, after all, and they do seem keenly aware of the deep waters they’re wading into, I just wonder if at any point someone said, Maybe we should try to find a Native filmmaker? Besides Willi White standing right next to you, Native filmmakers do exist.
Again, I fully believe Keough and Gammell are passionate about this film and are aware of the loaded nature of making a film about Native experiences as white filmmakers and are trying to be sensitive to that. And it does sound like they worked to involve the community and collaborate with Natives, except, you know, in the directorial effort. I just wonder why we’re still doing this in the year 2022. This subject is so loaded that The Wrap devoted a chunk of their Cannes special issue to explaining why, actually, it’s okay for these two white ladies to make a movie about a Native experience. Apropos of nothing, but someone once told me anyone explaining themselves without prompting has probably done something wrong.
And don’t throw Chloe Zhao up as a barrier, she fully discusses how her outsider status as an immigrant helps her deconstruct the myth of the American West. Of her experiences making films in and about the American West, Zhao says, “But just by pointing the camera at something, you’re already making a statement of some kind. It’s inevitable, because you’re adding a perspective to it. I find that sometimes when I go into a community that’s not my own, or a community that has a lot of issues attached to it, I have to resist wanting to say something about how I think they could be better, or how I think the government has wronged them. A lot of times, they tell me what they think I want to hear because they’ve been interviewed many times by journalists. And usually, there’s something that these people who are interviewing them want them to say, because people go in with an agenda. I hear them saying things to me almost like they’re programmed to do it.”
One, Zhao acknowledges by directing a film, she is stamping her perspective on the story. There is no authorial divorce. And she is aware there can be a kind of defensive opening statement when an outsider comes to a closed community and tries to understand it, that she has to move past the perception, both her own as an uninformed outsider, and any perceptions her subjects may have about what they think she wants to hear from them. Plus, there is her status as an immigrant, her films about the West are rooted in the perspective of the Other. Her films Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, both set on the Pine Ridge reservation, are anchored by the idea of being made a stranger in your own land. She’s not going to be a good shield for Riley Keough and Gina Gammell.
I hope the best for this film. It’s been made, I hope it turns out well. I also hope Willi White gets to direct a feature soon, and I hope he doesn’t get stuck being the go-to Lakota guy whenever someone wants to shoot a movie on Pine Ridge. And I hope the next time a white person has an epiphany in South Dakota, they google first to see if there is anyone better suited to tell the Native story they suddenly want to tell so badly. Because I promise you, Native Americans have been waiting for literal centuries to tell their own stories.