Filmmakers Suree Towfighnia (pictured above) and Courtney Hermann went to South Dakota many times over the course of four years to film the story of the White Plume family.
POV: What kind of crew did you have during the shooting of Standing Silent Nation? And how did the shoots work given that you and Courtney lived in two different parts of the country?
Suree Towfighnia: Our crew’s pretty much always been Courtney and myself, and luckily we can still have a conversation at the end of it all, because it’s really challenging to constantly be working with one other person. That being said, we couldn’t have made the film had it not been for the multitude of people who have come and gone throughout the process.
Unfortunately for us, the times when we brought in outside people as part of the crew were never the times that anything important was happening. So it was frustrating, and mostly it was just the two of us out there in the middle of the plains, cleaning gear, cooking dinner and trying to shoot and do sound and look at footage and make sure we’re not missing the story. Remarkably, our friendship remains intact!
Courtney moved to Portland right when we started making the film, and I lived in Chicago, and the movie took place almost directly in the middle of our locales in South Dakota. We would both go out there for a week or two every other month for a couple of years. Sometimes when we would fly out there, nothing would happen, and we’d feel like. “Oh my god, we just wasted all this money, and all we did was sit around waiting with our cameras.” Other times when we would be in South Dakota so much would be happening, and it would just be me, or it would just be Courtney, and we were doing everything ourselves.
We’re first-time filmmakers, and we weren’t very strong at prioritizing grant writing and fundraising because we were too busy making our film, teaching, going to grad school, trying to have a life, etc. Initially, we were making the film mostly on our own financing. I wouldn’t recommend that for anyone else, but that was the only way we knew at the time to accomplish the kind of film that we were trying to make.
POV: You’re shooting in a beautiful but very harsh part of the country. Can you talk about the importance of geography and land to the film?
Courtney Hermann: It’s really hard to take a shot out there without it being beautiful. The landscape out there is gorgeous, and it also is a little bit overwhelming at first. The land is a really important character in “Standing Silent Nation.” It’s the land base for the Lakota people and their nation. It provides the resources that the White Plumes would like to use so that they could create some kind of an economy to support themselves and the tribe at large. It’s beautiful, it’s rugged, it’s harsh, and I think that Lakota values are reflected in that landscape somehow. It’s a place where there are no stores and no jobs and no bank and no close gas station and no medical facility, but the Lakotas are making a go of it out there, because that’s their land. And even though the sovereignty of the Lakotas has been eroded over time through violations of treaties, that land base is still intact, and it’s a really important character in this story. That land represents the Lakota’s historical existence, and it also represents the possibilities for the future.
POV: There are beautiful shots of the hemp field during different times and seasons. Why did you keep going back to shoot the field?
Hermann: Over the course of the four years during which we shot the film, we would try to hang out in the hemp field during different seasons and document what was happening to the land. When we first saw the field and shot it, it was the year after the DEA had carried away all the plants. The seeds kind of trickled behind the agents as they walked, and the plants grew again the next year. That field was green and quite beautiful.
Then we kept visiting that field again and shooting the plants through the seasons and through their whole life cycle. It was important for us to keep revisiting the hemp fields. The hemp plant is possibly like the new buffalo for the Lakota, where every part could be used for all manner of things. It represents the ability of the White Plume family and the Lakota to sustain themselves on their own land. And so it was really important to us to continue to go back every time we visited and get as many shots of this surviving hemp as possible. Not only was the hemp representing the possibility to sustain this family into the future, the plant itself was living and regenerating without being tended to; it was a true survivor, much like the spirit of the Lakota people. Hemp survives season after season, year after year.
POV: Can you talk about the music you used in the film?
Hermann: The music that we use in Standing Silent Nation is primarily from the Crazy Horse Singers, a group out of Manderson, South Dakota. We also used music from people in the White Plume family. Most of the music that we use in the film is from people who live on Pine Ridge currently.
POV: How did you end up with the video that the DEA took when they raided the White Plume’s farm?
Hermann: We didn’t know that this footage existed for a really long time. Later, we came upon a producer from New York, and she had some footage of the White Plumes planting hemp the very first year. Through the Freedom of Information Act, she had found this videotape that the DEA agents in the field had taken during the first raid of the White Plume crop. We got that footage from her.