Shinnecock Tribal trustee Lance Gumps at the US Open
Filmmaker Q&A

In Opulent Hamptons Filmmaker Asks, Whose Land Is it Anyway?

November 14, 2019 by Craig Phillips in Interviews

Treva Wurmfeld was named one Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film a few years back and made her mark first with her festival award-winning film Shepard and Dark about iconic American playwright Sam Shepard’s lifelong friendship with reclusive writer and archivist Johnny Dark. She’s worked on films with Hollywood director Doug Liman and studied internationally, but for Conscience Point, the Manhattan native came to a place with more personal attachment, Long Island’s affluent The Hamptons to tell the story of the Shinnecock Indian Nation’s battle to reclaim sacred lands. 

Hailed by the Shelter Island Reporter (a Long Island newspaper) as a “masterpiece of a documentary,” Conscience Point “should be seen by everyone in this area. It should be shown in schools here.”

Treva talked to us about returning to a place she summered as a child with a different perspective, how she was mindful of being an outsider among the Shinnecock Nation, and what the reaction to the film has been like in The Hamptons itself.

Rebecca Hill-Genia and filmmaker Treva Wurmfeld chat during production of Conscience Point
Rebecca Hill-Genia and filmmaker Treva Wurmfeld chat during production of Conscience Point

Why did you want to make a film about this battle over land in Long Island?

In 2014, when I first visited the Shinnecock Reservation and met Becky Genia — before the #metoo movement and Trump “resistance” — I was struck by her tenacity and her fearless ability to stand up to abusers. We spoke as she lit a community fire pit she created as a meeting place for survivors of domestic violence, a safe space she called WAVE — Women Against Violence Everyday.

During our initial conversation, Becky connected the historical oppression of the Shinnecock people to present-day tribal corruption, substance abuse, and domestic violence, calling out her own tribe for perpetuating problems that of course stemmed from centuries of abuse and injustice from the town. “It’s all the same oppression,” she said.“As a child, I knew nothing of the turmoil underlying the Hamptons.”

She spoke of the over-development, grave desecration, and the social and economic marginalization. I was immediately struck by the contrast Becky’s experience of place had with the hundreds of thousands who visit the Hamptons and think of it as a place to go to the beach and rub shoulders with celebrities. This reality check was immense for me and it was because of this first encounter that I suddenly realized, not only did I want to make a film about Becky but that the Hamptons was a hotbed of critical issues we all should be more conscious of.

I also have a personal history with this land.

Some of my earliest memories stem from the Summer of 1980 when my family rented a house in an area called Hampton Waters. My family wasn’t wealthy; we didn’t play golf, or shop at luxury boutiques, or eat at fancy restaurants. We swam in the bay, dug for clams in the mud, rescued turtles from the road, and breathed in this beautiful, wild place, as part of an older wave of artist visitors seeking a seaside escape from the City. Of course, as a child, I knew nothing of the turmoil underlying the Hamptons. It was only much later, when I met Becky that I learned of her decades of struggle to preserve the land I also, as a visitor, cherished.

Becky and her Shinnecock family share this same sense of the land’s non-material value. As do many others in the film who want the right to continue working and living in this place and seek to halt the over-development before it’s too late. Its beauty is a curse because, without preservation of the rights of those already living there, it attracts the wealthiest who simply want to build mansions with views, in a spot conveniently close to New York City. 

Lastly, as a filmmaker, I want to contribute with a film that is empowering and thought-provoking. As the environmental, economic and social stakes get higher in our country, civic participation becomes more important. I want this film to contribute to a larger wave of filmmaking questioning power dynamics and privilege, agency and oppression. Becky has experience and expertise that need to be shared; she is an inspiration to me and I believe she will be to others as well.

You mention here that you were very familiar with the area since childhood. What was it like coming back there as more of a journalist/documentarian trying to tell a story that by its very nature wouldn’t always be flattering to everyone from there? Was there resistance?

My parents rented a place for a couple weeks in the Summertime during my very early childhood.  So I had no allegiances to the area per se. I came in with some fond memories and a neutral, if not somewhat ignorant, perspective on the Shinnecock and their history. From the get-go, everyone I filmed was very open and accessible  – the people who were most insecure were people from families that dated back to the early colonial settlers (they eventually asked not to be included in the film despite their support of the messaging). In general, I found very little resistance and a tremendous outpouring of support which I am very grateful for.

Shinnecock attorney Kelly Dennis at Ceremony, in Conscience Point

On that note, what was the reaction like when you screened the film in the Hamptons?

Very positive! That said, I don’t think the film premiere was positioned by the festival to attract the same demographic as some other more commercial celebrity-driven film. In that sense, I’m not sure how many elite Hamptons homeowners and visitors we woke up. I got the sense our premieres were full of many Shinnecock members and their supporters. Nonetheless, it was a very satisfying experience and we were thrilled to be included in the Hamptons International Film Festival lineup.

Can you provide us with any updates on the story in the film? Anything new with Becky and the Shinnecock People and their movement in the Hamptons?

In June of 2019, yet another effort for economic development by the Shinnecock Nation was contested by the town of Southampton, namely the construction of two 60′ tall electronic billboards on the side of the highway leading to the Hamptons, on sovereign Shinnecock land. Southampton town Supervisor, Jay Schneiderman (featured prominently in Conscience Point) went on the record to state his opposition and they tried to have the State of NY block it. Many Shinnecock members featured in the film were outspoken advocates of the billboard. It has turned into a bit of a legal battle and is still ongoing. There has been a ton of press about this.

Meanwhile, since the formation of the joint committee between the town and the Shinnecock nation (at the end of the film), the Community Preservation Fund has made offers on culturally sensitive sites in the Shinnecock Hills. I don’t have the exact number of offers or purchases but this is some small progress.

That said, the legislation that Rebecca Hill-Genia and others have been fighting to pass for decades–to protect further desecration of grave sites–has still not been passed by the town.

What do you hope PBS viewers take away from Conscience Point the most? What discussions would you encourage people to have after they watch the film?
 

I hope that the Shinnecock and other Native American viewers feel empowered to continue the fight and be front and center in the conversation going forward about the state of this country. I hope non-Native viewers wake up to the reality of Native American history and seek out ways to support, listen and stand behind the efforts of Native rights advocates, activists, and environmentalists.

Native American Shane Weeks fishing on the Shinnecock reservation across from a mansion in the Hamptons
Shane Weeks fishing on the Shinnecock reservation across from a mansion in the Hamptons

How did you gain the trust of the Shinnecock people and other subjects in your film?

I worked on this film for five years and kept in good contact with my main subjects throughout. I followed closely what they were dealing with both personally and politically as much as possible and tried to show up as much as possible. I care deeply about them and I think that became clear pretty quickly.

And what do you say to people who ask about your being an “outsider” in making Conscience Point?

My initial entry to Becky and her community was through a focus on the issue of violence against women on the reservation and with that, I never felt like an outsider. Though I’m not Native, I believe all women who have been victims of violence can relate to one another. As the film shifted more towards a focus on the land issues, I also didn’t feel like an outsider since I had grown up going to the area. That said, of course, I was sensitive to being an outsider within the Shinnecock community and tried to keep an open dialogue about this with both the Shinnecock members I was filming as well as my filmmaking team and community.

I felt it was important for many reasons to keep my field crew all female and I also brought on two Shinnecock members to help produce the film, Charles Certain and Alli Joseph, as well as producer Julianna Brannum who is Comanche.

What was the single biggest challenge in making Conscience Point?

The biggest challenge was fundraising but the next biggest challenge was focusing the story. There were many different tangents we could, and at times wanted to, go off on. We ultimately figured out how to weave the various issues while maintaining focus on the Shinnecock story- but this was not easy and took a lot of trial and error during post-production.

Was there anything you had to cut out of the finished film you wish you could’ve left in?

I would have loved to include more on Becky’s backstory with the American Indian Movement, especially as it related to her work with the Thunderbird Sisters and contemporary issues women face on the reservation. The Shinnecock were originally a matriarchal society – I wanted to go into this more but we needed to keep the film focused on the land issues.

Is there a scene in Conscience Point that especially resonates or stays with you…?

Seeing Becky repeatedly stand up in Southampton Town Hall was/is very moving to me. When she’s at the podium and says, “I think Southampton town needs a reminder that life did not begin in 1640” and she’s standing there in a black leather jacket with her granddaughter Nasha behind her in Native regalia -I found that particularly badass.

Craig Phillips

Craig is the digital content producer for Independent Lens, based in San Francisco. He is a film nerd, cartoonist, classic film poster collector, wannabe screenwriter, and owner of/owned by cats.