Film paints poignant vision of the Native experience

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

If the emotional climax of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” feels authentic, that’s because it is.

A still frame from “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” playing at the Panida Theater this weekend. Courtesy photo.

When it came time to shoot the climactic scenes at Wounded Knee, director Steven Lewis Simpson and co-writer Kent Nerburn allowed their star, Dave Bald Eagle, to search his own emotions for the scene. The result was a moment of truth and power, the perfect capstone to a film about the Native experience.

“By him just going there to this very, very emotional place, he created something more powerful than (we) could ever have written,” Simpson said.

It’s that beating Native heart, embodied in the form of Bald Eagle, that drives “Neither Wolf Nor Dog.” It plays tonight — Thursday, Aug. 17 at 7:30 p.m.—at the Panida Theater, as well as 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 18, and 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20.

“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” tells the story of Lakota elder Dan, his protective friend, Grover, and writer Kent as they embark on a road trip through the heart of Lakota territory. It’s a tightly focused, intimate story, one perfectly suited to the flexibility of a crowdfunded movie.

According to Simpson, casting the character of Dan was among the most pressing concerns when adapting the novel by Nerburn. Ultimately, it was Bald Eagle that proved perfect for the role, but it also introduced a new challenge. Simpson and his team needed to complete shooting the movie while Eagle was capable of participating.

“When I first met him, he was 93, so it was a race against the clock,” Simpson said

The cast and crew embarked on a whirlwind, 18-day shoot, filming on average seven hours a day. They were at times limited by the Eagle’s ability to film, as well as the functionality of the 1973 Buick that the three main characters drive throughout the movie.

There were plenty of natural advantages to the shoot, too. Since the movie was shot in Lakota territory, it was a relatively simple matter of capturing its inherent beauty.

“In this case, one of the things that made it easier was we were shooting in the Great Plains,” Simpson said. “The locations were there; there was no cost factor at all to it.”

“It was just us in the real places,” he added. “That allows a real deep and profound relationship to develop between the characters.”

Since its completion and premiere, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” has enjoyed significant success in local theaters. It ran in Spokane for seven weeks, fueled by positive word of mouth and critical acclaim. Its performance in Minnesota theaters was also extraordinary. According to Simpson, the success is fueled by the authenticity of the movie’s story and performances. He hopes that strong showing will repeat itself this weekend in Sandpoint.

“At the closest theater to (Sandpoint, in Spokane,) it’s been a fantastic success,” he said. “It’s all at the end of the day how well our word of mouth has gotten around.”

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