Author Kent Nerburn (played by Christopher Sweeney) receives a random phone call, asking him to listen to the words of Dan, a Lakota Elder (played by Chief Dave Bald Eagle). Nerburn’s prior book indicated his sensitivity to Native American history and storytelling and his newfound assignment has him traveling hundreds of miles to construct a book from Dan’s tortured memories.
The story of how Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson has made and screened Neither Wolf Nor Dog is fascinating. Filming took place over 18 days, most of which was at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, on a $30,000.00 budget. Simpson also served as cinematographer, editor, and co-screenwriter (he adapted the film from Nerburn’s book of the same name). It has become a word of mouth success, remaining in theaters for years and inspiring Simpson to perform a TEDx talk about his innovative distribution methods (the film continues to travel around the world).
I wish I could tell you I loved the film as much as the legend surrounding the making of it. Simpson’s patient, well-shot, low-budget indie is undermined by a main character with an unnecessary and ill-defined journey. Nerburn, through Sweeney’s unconvincing and irritating performance, comes across as whiny and distant the entire way. Although it’s made clear that Dan wants to see a change in Nerburn’s heart during the course of their conversations and road trips together, any sense of catharsis doesn’t come across; even in his final scenes, Sweeney comes across like he’s meeting his co-stars for the first time. I found myself rooting against Nerburn, which was surely not the intention of the filmmakers.
A bigger problem is having Nerburn as the protagonist to begin with. His character is set up in early scenes with a family and a light backstory that go nowhere. More to the point, having a Caucasian protagonist as a means of entering a story about Native Americans is both old hat and ill-considered. The story here is Dan’s, not Kent Nerburn’s. A better example of a film that depicts Native American life through the eyes of outsiders include the recent Wind River and Thunderheart (itself a fine extension of the harrowing documentary, Incident at Oglala). The best film I’ve ever seen about the hardships facing Native Americans and life on a reservation is still Chris Eyre’s stunning, risk-taking, and poetic Skins from 2002.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog would have been better presented as either a documentary or (considering how dialog-driven it is) a stage play. As a movie, even one with occasionally striking cinematography, it’s hindered by clunky dialog and pacing so slack, it makes for a very long 110 minutes. It’s slower than your average Jim Jarmusch movie and not as sharply defined.
To give the film a break (and any micro-budget indie that has found an audience certainly deserves one), there is one very big reason to see this: playing Dan is Lakota Elder Dave Bald Eagle, who was 95 years old during shooting (he passed away two years later). Dave Bald Eagle gives a shining, one-of-a-kind performance. There is pain and emotional power in his reflections on the bigotry and abuse he and his people have suffered. When Dan is the focal point, Neither Wolf Nor Dog finds an authenticity that is direct and unquestionably powerful. There’s also a strong cameo appearance from Zahn McClarnon (so good in Doctor Sleep) and the final scene is a nice touch and just-right.
I am grateful to have seen a film that put me in the presence of Dave Bald Eagle but sincerely wished Simpson had edited his unworthy white protagonist out of the movie.
Not Rated/110 Min.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog is showing on February 28, 7:30pm for one night only at ProArts Theater in Kihei (at Azeka Shopping Center).
Photo courtesy Peoples World