We started out with this question: If we can walk into the Body Shop and buy lotion made from hemp in the United States, why can’t American farmers grow hemp?
Our research led us to farmer-activists who questioned the U.S. government policy of paying subsidies to farmers to not cultivate overabundant crops, such as corn and soybeans, yet putting a ban on growing a fiber crop that has thousands of uses, none of them drug-related.
It didn’t take long for us to follow this issue down a different but related path, which ended on the back porch of a small house on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota.
On August 10, 2002, we traveled from Chicago through the Badlands of South Dakota. After passing buffalo fences and a horse corral, we pulled into a dusty driveway, where we were greeted by Alex White Plume, who apologized for being in a bad mood on such a beautiful day. He informed us that 10 minutes earlier, the DEA had served him with a summons detailing eight federal charges against him. We asked Alex if we could put a microphone on him. He obliged, and we started filming.
Alex was the first known person to grow industrial hemp within the borders of the United States in over 40 years. His previous two years of cultivation had ended in DEA raids. And yet he planted again this third year. Why?
The more we got to know the White Plume family — with whom we would work over the next five years — the more we became conscious of the many forces that shape and challenge them. Life on the reservation is characterized by hope, community, spirituality, beauty, struggle, strength, oppression, lack of opportunity, historical trauma and all the ills stemming from poverty that are difficult for some to imagine but that really exist within the United States.
As often happens with documentary, our story found us. The White Plumes’ hemp cultivation was what drew us to their land, but we quickly realized that hemp is only a part of the larger story of this one family’s efforts to maintain their values and their way of life. When we arrived on the reservation, we were ignorant about the sovereignty of Indian Nations and the existence of tribal governments. We had little understanding of the strong bonds of culture, history and tradition that the Lakota share, or of their tight-knit family structures.
However, after Debra White Plume agreed to sign on as our Associate Producer we were confident the story would be crafted authentically.
What we found in Alex White Plume’s experiences symbolized the struggle for sovereignty and showed us a man whose daily actions model the values he seeks to preserve on the reservation, either intentionally, for the benefit of the younger generations, or unintentionally, as he navigates his way through the series of federal roadblocks placed in the way of his path to a sustainable economy.
Documentary filmmaking requires faith — in your story, in yourself, in the subject, in your ability to get it done and in the belief that somehow people will actually see the film and be changed by it. “Standing Silent Nation” aims to empower our audience to work to create social change for all people in order to ensure the sustainability of cultures and historical traditions for future generations.
— Suree Towfighnia and Courtney Hermann, Filmmakers