POV: Why did you decide to make this film?
Courtney Hermann: Standing Silent Nation started as a historical film about industrial hemp, but it also had resonance with the present because farming is subsidized in this country. People are paid not to grow corn and soybeans, but hemp is a rotation crop, and it’s valuable and doesn’t need to be subsidized. But as soon as we met the White Plum family the project evolved.
Hemp is an important issue in the documentary, but it’s overshadowed by the importance of native sovereignty.
Suree Towfighnia: We were interested in seeing what role hemp could play in rejuvenating American family farms, and in our research, we came across the story of Alex White Plume, a Lakota Indian living in South Dakota who is growing industrial hemp. Right then our film became something different.
Even though I studied American history, I was completely ignorant of the plight of Native American Indians in the United States today. I drove out to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and met Alex and his family, and instantly our film changed. We started filming and we never looked back, and the film became about a Native American farmer who had all the authority in the world to grow industrial hemp according to his tribe and his family.
POV: How did you find the White Plume family? What was it about them that made you decide to change the film so that it was about their struggles to grow hemp?
Hermann: We found out about the White Plume family through our research, and then we read about this harvest celebration that they were intending to have, and we thought that this could be a piece of the puzzle of our hemp documentary. We called up and asked if we could attend, and Alex said, “Sure, come on out.” So our crew headed out to Pine Ridge in South Dakota. About ten minutes prior to our arrival in Pine Ridge, Alex White Plume had been served with an injunction and a subpoena by federal agents. At that moment, it became clear to us that this situation and family needed some attention.
Towfighnia: I was late! I’m always 10 to 15 minutes late for everything, so because I was my usual 10 to 15 minutes late, we missed the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency). But when we got there we knew that there was something to that timing.
POV: You had already started working on the documentary, thinking it was going to be about industrial hemp. Was changing the arc of it to be about the White Plume family a difficult decision? How did you come to that decision?
Towfighnia: Truthfully, I’m really reluctant to change. And as a documentary filmmaker, you’re always saying you have to be accepting of change. I was really adamant about making a film about industrial hemp farmers in the United States, and before we went to Pine Ridge, I said to my producer, “We’re not making a film about Native Americans, why are we driving out there? We don’t have any money, we don’t have any time, and now you want me to go out in August and drive to a place I’ve never been and make a film about Native Americans?”
When I got to Pine Ridge, it was so alive. Here was a family that was doing something, that had no other options. There are not a lot of jobs on Pine Ridge, but there is a lot of labor and there’s a lot of land. When we saw that there was hemp growing and people who needed a means of supporting themselves, it just made sense. Once we started exploring and digging deeper with the film, we became aware of all these other issues out there that tied everything together, and it became much larger than just a story about industrial hemp. The film became a story about a family trying to preserve a future.
POV: What were the biggest challenges that you faced in making the film?
Hermann: One of the hardest things for me, as we were making the film, was the fact that the White Plumes, who were now my friends, were living in Third World conditions whereas I’m from a place of privilege. In my world, there are resources, you can walk to the store and get a piece of fresh fruit, you can go over to the bank and cash a check, you can get a job; but these friends of mine aren’t from a place like that, and I continually asked myself whether this film was what I was contributing. “That’s it?” I would think, and I guess it is. I have my friendship to offer and I have the resources to generate this film, which will hopefully affect other people and get the word out about the White Plumes and their struggle and who they are and what they’re trying to do, but that’s all that I can offer.
From the very beginning, it’s been hard for me to grapple with the huge differences between where I’m from and out there and what’s happening out there in South Dakota. Coming from a place of privilege and then being out in a place where my friends are dealing with Third World conditions has been really difficult because I’m not sure that I’m doing enough. I don’t really know what to do, and so in the end, this is what I can do. I can make this film. I can ask people to take a look at it. I can entertain people with the film, and I can inform them with the film.
Towfighnia: Aside from funding, one of our biggest challenges was knowing when to go out and film. I could have moved to Manderson, South Dakota, and lived there for four years, because every second of the day, something important was happening. As a director, it was really important to get a gauge of when to be out there to capture the relevant moments. Communication was also really hard. The White Plumes are a large family, and they have so much going on in their lives that the hemp issue was a tiny dot in a puddle of things that they’re fighting for. So to have a communication network where we knew when we had to be in Pine Ridge and not miss things was really important and definitely a challenge.
This was my first documentary and I learned so much during the process. Initially, I was really stressed out all the time. I wanted to make sure that I covered everything. As a director, it was really hard for me to see through the big glasses of my expectation and find what was really important to be filming. After cutting down 180 hours of footage to 52 minutes, I found what was important in the piece. But along the way it was a struggle and it was something I learned from, so that was probably my biggest challenge: my own inexperience and overcoming it.
POV: What can PBS viewers of Standing Silent Nation do to help the White Plumes and the Lakota Nation?
Hermann: I don’t believe that documentaries alone can cause social change, but I do think that the documentary form is so powerful that it can change the way people think and it can change the context from which they see the whole world. Once people see the film, I want them to talk about the issues that are raised in it with other people. I would love it if somebody who had just seen Standing Silent Nation took the step to write or call their congressperson and ask them, “What have you done lately about treaty rights for native people? How important are indigenous rights to you?” It would be great if people could take that step to try to catalyze some kind of a legislative change in the way that this country deals with the indigenous peoples. But even if they don’t go that far, I want people to walk away from the film and start up a conversation with a friend about the fact that we have sovereign nations within the boundaries of the United States of America where people are living in Third World conditions.
I think that if viewers of Standing Silent Nation can get out there and just talk about it, that we can change the context of how we think about our own country and perhaps we can catalyze some change, such as honoring treaties. There are treaties that the United States government has failed to honor that are still binding treaties with native nations. It’s important that those treaty rights be honored. It’s also important that we not exploit the natural resources found on a lot of reservation land. And finally, it’s important that we honor the culture and traditions of native people.
POV: You mentioned that you believe the documentary form is very powerful. What about it makes it so powerful?
Hermann: Documentary has this amazing ability to connect an audience with a character in a meaningful way. It’s really good at depicting the particular, and using the particular to point to the universal. Documentary has teeth, because it’s real, and so it resonates with people. It shows us new things in a way that’s familiar. It shows us familiar things in a new way. It’s really good at depicting a group of people and saying, “Hey, look at those people, aren’t they different?” And then it looks at those same people and says “Aren’t they just the same as us?” It’s a unique genre of motion pictures, and it’s the one that I work in exclusively. It’s also probably the one genre that gives the most back to you over the long run because you’re creating relationships with human beings, and those tend to stick around for a long time.
POV: In addition to the issue of sovereignty, the film also touches on the issue of using hemp as an alternative energy source. Can you talk a little about that?
Towfighnia: The great thing about industrial hemp is that there are so many uses for it, not the least of which is alternative energy. While working on this project, we got to know all these people involved in developing alternative uses for hemp. Hemp is a renewable resource, and we could develop an industry here in the United States for it. It’s not very hard, we could be planting hemp all throughout the country on land that is lying vacant right now. We could have an alternative resource with a very simple change to our existing engines that could power those vehicles and create a biodegradable emission. It seems pretty simple to me, and I’m not sure why we don’t grow hemp in the United States. Hopefully someone can answer that question some day, because so far, no one’s been able to in all of our research on this film.
POV: Now that you’ve finished the film, what stands out to you from the filmmaking process, and what do you want audiences to take away from the film?
Hermann: It’s really important to me that people understand that Standing Silent Nation is the result of a collaboration between Americans and Lakota over the course of almost five years, and the film is about Lakota values and Lakota culture and native issues, told through the lens of American filmmakers. To me, this is a really important thing to take note of. The film is the result of the convergence of two things: the White Plumes gathering resources to try to deal with their problems with the federal government, and us attempting to make a film about hemp. In the filmmaking process, a lot of really important relationships were developed between human beings, and that is at the heart of what making this film has been about: a collaboration, mutual respect and a mutual goal.