Starring 95-Year-Old Dave Bald Eagle and shot on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson is the genius behind one of the most successful self-distributed films ever
By John Lavitt
Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 09-12-2019
Opening on September 13th for one-week at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and in theaters nationwide since 2016, Neither Wolf Nor Dog is now longest first-run theatrical release in the United States in over a decade. Adapted by Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson, who also serves as, producer, cinematographer, editor and co-screenwriter, from a novel by Kent Nerburn, the deeply moving, funny, and powerful film is a triumph of 21st century filmmaking. It shows that the cultural underdog can still succeed in 21st century corporate America by creating a narrative that resonates with a wide audience.
Starring the late Chief Dave Bald Eagle (April 8, 1919 – July 22, 2016) as Dan, the respected Native American leader was 95-years-old at the time of filming of Neither Wolf Nor Dog. When was the last time that you saw a feature film that starred someone in their nineties? It is a true rarity and truly special. Despite the central part of the Lakota elder in Neither Wolf Nor Dog being his first starring role in a film, Dave Bald Eagle captures the screen with a subtle grace and an undeniable presence. From the moment he appears on screen, you want to know more about the character and you want to spend time with him. There is an undeniable sense that his deep wisdom is almost contagious and will deepen anyone’s appreciation of the greater world.
It was not an easy film to make, and it was almost impossible to find the funding needed. Steven Louis Simpson explains, “We could never have conventionally funded the movie because Hollywood would never give us a Hollywood budget because of a 95-year-old star. It just couldn’t be insured, apart from anything else.” Thinking outside the box, Simpson funded the film with two Kickstarter campaigns. Realizing that more was needed, Simpson bought with his own money all the equipment and vehicles needed for the shoot. Luckily, he was able to sell them later for a slight profit. Incredibly, as Simpson describes with a smile, “I got it in the can for under $50,000. And that was everyone paid, shooting on location.”
Given the philosophy behind the story of the film, such innovation leading to a true success makes sense. In the movie, Kent Nerburn (wonderfully played by actor Christopher Sweeney) is a writer who has written a few books about Native American history and culture. Nevertheless, he’s caught off guard when he receives a cryptic request in the mail from a Lakota elder called Dan. Intrigued and wanting to know more, Nerburn travels to the Pine Ridge Reservation. After flopping about like a fish out of water, he finally stumbles across Dan. He finds out that the Lakota Elder wants him to write his life story. Despite knowing plenty about tribal culture and Lakota history, Nerburn is hesitant to dive into such a project. Dan has no patience for such reluctance.
Indeed, Dan knows that Nerburn is the man who will write his story. With certainty, he tells the nervous writer, “The world is not an accident. We don’t always get to choose our parts. I called you and you came. If you are too small, or too weak, it is too late. The Creator has given you a task. You don’t get to turn back just because you want to.”
Dan will not take no for an answer. Despite his blunders, Nerburn cannot say no to a road trip with Dan and his friend, Grover, a fellow Lakota elder with more of an edge. Expertly portrayed by Richard Ray Whitman, Grover provides a sense of passionate menace and dark humor to the narrative while never coming close to crossing the boundary to the point of violence. Nevertheless, his presence is often intimidating due to his obvious frustration with the white man. Indeed, it almost feels like Nerburn is being kidnapped as he’s swallowed into a bumpy road trip through the heart of the contemporary Native American landscape.
Not wanting to give too much away, it’s important to say that the film is notable for a key scene shot at the Wounded Knee Memorial in South Dakota, where victims of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre are buried in a mass grave. A sacred place of memory and protest, Wounded Knee has come to represent all the injustices that Native Americans have faced since the subjugation of their society and culture. As many people remember, it was the center of what is now called the Wounded Knee incident. The conflict began on February 27, 1973, when more than two hundred Oglala Lakota and followers of the American Indian Movement seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
What’s important to note is that Neither Wolf Nor Dog is the first and only film to be given permission to shoot at the Wounded Knee Memorial. During this incredibly intense scene, Dave Bald Eagle threw aside the script and improvised every beat from his heart. Fiction was not needed because his connection to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 was deeply personal. At the end of this scene, he turned to Christopher Sweeney, who was blown away by the power of his fellow actor’s performance, and said without blinking, “I’ve been holding that in for 95-years.”
If you have the chance, this is a film that should not be missed. With a 92% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 96% audience score, the film is loved and honored by many. There is a reason why this response is a reality today. With Neither Wolf Nor Dog and a resonant performance by Dave Bald Eagle, Steven Louis Simpson achieved an artistic landmark that expresses a subjugated culture on its own terms.