Neither Wolf Nor Dog visits Lakota country, focusing on character development for cultural understanding
Many films taking inspiration from Indigenous narratives can fall into the trap of only emphasizing the culture, leaving the characters in a realm of non-development. Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson’s 2016 film, Neither Wolf Nor Dog, does not.
“One of the things that a lot of people ask is, ‘How do you approach this film from a cultural aspect?’ with me being non-Native,” Simpson says. “To me, if you approach this from a cultural aspect then you have automatically failed. The first responsibility is to the characters, the individuals that inhabit the story.”
For that reason, Neither Wolf Nor Dog does not come off as clichéd or contrived. It’s a real story ripe with emotion and authentic characters.
The film follows Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney), a writer who is summoned to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota by a grey Lakota Elder named Dan (Dave Bald Eagle). Dan tasks Nerburn with writing the story of the Lakota people. As Nerburn tries to abandon the task, he is essentially forced on a road trip through the Lakota country with Dan and his friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), a mild-tempered, no-bullshit kind of man who confronts Nerburn on his values and beliefs.
“Aboriginal content is always put under a microscope and it’s seen as a conversation about entire cultures and its dialogue,” Simpson says. “But like any film, this story is a road trip between three distinct individuals.”
The story is based on Nerburn’s real-life experience and his 1994 book of the same name. The author shopped around for a director to create a movie adaptation until he asked Simpson to take it on. Simpson, a filmmaker known for his previous work on Pine Ridge, seemed like the perfect match.
“I think one of the other things that was crucial was my perspective on it,” Simpson says. “There are some parallels between Kent Nerburn and myself. When I first went out to Pine Ridge my experience was the same as his. I started filming a few political things and then it turned out to a 13-year commitment with my A Thunder Being Nation documentary. So I met many elders like Dan.”
While each actor does a superb job, the performance that stands out is the late Bald Eagle’s. The actor was 95 years old at the time and his role as Dan is an immensely powerful and honest depiction. He did not just play Dan, through his own experiences, he was Dan.
“It was so important for me to understand who Dan was as an individual,” Simpson says. “Dave was the only one who could have played him.”
Bald Eagle’s most powerful scene is near the end of the film when Nerburn and Dave walk through the Wounded Knee Massacre site.
“When I filmed at Wounded Knee, the dialogue between Nerburn and Dan was off script,” Simpson says. “We had been hitting such a true line between the characters that the novel and script would feel contrived by that point.”
In reality, Bald Eagle’s relationship to the Wounded Knee site was through blood.
“His personal and family connection to Wounded Knee was closer than Dan’s. It’s his people that fled to Pine Ridge Reservation and were massacred there,” Simpson says. “He went to a very deep place and turned to Christopher Sweeney after filming and said, ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95 years.’”
Bald Eagle was able to go to that intimate place due to Neither Wolf Nor Dog’s low budget and small crew, which consisted of Simpson and a sound mixer.
“If we had a 30-member crew there was no way Dave could have gone there,” Simpson says. “It was a bare-bones production filmed in 18 days.”
Regardless of its budget, it’s a film everyone in North America needs to see to understand the real, unpolished relationship between Indigenous people and everyone else.
“The one thing you can’t buy, in terms of budget, is heart,” Simpson says. “This film was made in the real world. A world with real problems. Nothing was contained the way you would want it to be on a film set. Sometimes, that’s what makes it special.”
Fri., Nov. 24 – Fri., Dec. 1
Neither Wolf Nor Dog
General admission prices