Shining Mountains Film Festival to close with ‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’
Where: Shining Mountains Film Festival, Wheeler Opera House
When: Monday, Oct. 8, 6 p.m.
How much: $15
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: The screening will be followed by a Q-and-A with Phyllis Bald Eagle, Anuk Bald Eagle and Amos Cook.
A roadtrip movie, a journey through Native American history and a powerful final statement by the late Dave Bald Eagle, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” will close the first annual Shining Mountains Film Festival in Aspen on Monday evening.
Based on the beloved book of the same name by Kent Nerburn, the film follows the author (played by Christopher Sweeney) as he’s summoned by a Lakota elder named Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) and taken on an emotional roadtrip.
In a tense early scene depicting their first meeting, Dan gives Nerburn some of his own writings and reflects: “When white people won it was a victory. When we won it was a massacre. When they fought for freedom it was a revolution. When we fought for freedom it was an uprising.”
The film is one of 10 new movies by and about Native Americans screening at the first annual Shining Mountains festival at the Wheeler Opera House. Produced by the Wheeler and the city of Aspen, the festival runs Sunday and Monday. It coincides with Indigenous People’s Day, which the city began celebrating — in place of Columbus Day — last year.
Dave Bald Eagle was a fascinating and influential figure — a decorated World War II veteran who fought at both Anzio and on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, later becoming a Hollywood stunt man, a musician, an actor and a Lakota chief. When he died in 2016, NPR’s obituary dubbed him “the most interesting man in the world.”
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” filmed when Bald Eagle was 95, was both his final film and his first lead role.
The legends surrounding Bald Eagle were belied by his easy-going manner, director Steven Lewis Simpson said.
“He had a wonderful sense of humor and sense of mischief,” Simpson said. “And a lightness and warmth about him. And he had a fearlessness.”
In the film’s emotional climactic scene filmed at Wounded Knee, South Dakota — the site of the 1890 massacre and the 1973 direct action that galvanized the American Indian movement — Bald Eagle fearlessly poured his inner torment and life’s experience in the movement onto the screen. For the scene, Simpson tossed away his script and asked Bald Eagle to improvise based on his own feelings.
“He went to a very deep place,” Simpson recalled. “And after I said ‘cut’ he turned to Christopher and said, ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years.’ That’s what he put on screen. The audience feels like they’re standing there with him.”
Monday’s screening will be followed by a panel discussion with Dave Bald Eagle’s relatives Phyllis Bald Eagle, Anuk Bald Eagle and Amos Cook.
Simpson, a Scottish director who’d made a feature and documentary film and a television show about Native Americans and contemporary life on reservations, came to the project after a chance meeting with Nerburn, the author of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” After a screening of Simpson’s film “Rez Bomb” in a small town near a reservation in Nebraska, Nerburn gave him a copy of the book.
“He said that Hollywood producers had been circling it for almost 25 years and making all these grand promises and always failing to deliver,” Simpson recalled. “He was getting very tired of it.”
Nerburn saw how Simpson actually got his micro-budget films onto the screen and found audiences for them, and how his work spoke of his years of time and personal investment on reservations.
“I promised him I would get it made by any means necessary,” Simpson said.
Premiered in early 2017, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” has become an extremely rare phenomenon in American cinema: a regional hit. Simpson distributed the film himself, literally calling movie theaters in communities he knew would respond to the film and near reservations.
It’s stayed in theaters for nearly two years now, playing in Minnesota, then Oregon and Washington state and beyond. Early this year, it opened in a theater in Montana then, based on word-of-mouth, spread to 11 theaters there — a huge number for a small state — and 14 in South Dakota. This fall, it’s begun gaining traction in Wyoming and Oklahoma and Michigan, and now it’s making its way into Colorado through Aspen.
It’s become something of a phenomenon, earning a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, spreading to 185 screens and filling seats in theaters (it also led to Simpson giving a TED Talk on film distribution). In Vancouver, Washington, this summer, it was the second highest-grossing film through blockbuster season.
“I’m used to being disappointed with the industry,” Simpson said. “They don’t give things the time of day unless it’s an easy sell. The business is filled with a handful of brilliant people and scores of people with a lot of money and without a clue.”
Without screenings in New York or Los Angeles, the larger entertainment industry has ignored “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” But that’s all right with Simpson, because the film is speaking to the audience it was made for, thrilling the book’s fervent following and standing as a testament to Dave Bald Eagle’s brilliance.
“For the film’s audience, it’s an important cultural thing,” Simpson said.
He’s hustled to keep it in theaters, rather than on video-on-demand platforms, because the film is so powerful as a communal experience.
“There is something in there that is touching people,” he said. “I’m just going to keep plugging away at theaters.”