Feature Documentary Reviews

Embers of Hope (2021) – 4.5 stars

Director: Delfynn T. Aldag

Writers: Delfynn T. Aldag & Patrick W. Shan

Running time: 1hr 21mins

A possible picturing of the United States of America is that of a temple to possessive individualism, built on stolen land, by stolen bodies. Delfynn Aldag in Embers of Hope takes a similar approach to US history; but they also offer us a hopeful vision of an alternative way of structuring society in, at least initially, one part of the north American continent.

From the submission notes, it appears that Aldag has made some films for NGOs but that Embers of Hope is their first attempt at a full-length feature documentary. The movie was shot between 2018 and 2019 but, I am assuming, its post-production and release was delayed by the pandemic. No matter, in Embers of Hope Aldag has come up with an elegant and evocative piece of cinema that represents a huge step for somebody just beginning to make movies.

The particular area of north America where Aldag finds the embers of hope is the Pine Ridge reservation in the state of South Dakota – the much diminished homeland of one of the continent’s First Nations, the Lakota people. Essentially, the reservation is a ghetto – all that is left to the Lakota, after the US government reneged on treaty commitments and stole the vast majority of their ancestral land in order to exploit its economic resources. The reservation is, to an outside observer, somewhat bizarrely in the charge of the National Parks Service.

The movie is in two parts.

The first is a brief but incisive sketch of Lakota history during and after the European conquest – this takes the form of a series of stills of archive photographs from the 19th century interspersed with occasional landscape footage of the reservation from the present day – accompanied by a narrative voice. The narration by Luc de Villars is finely judged – not overpowering – their voice is mellifluous and well suited to the telling of stories.

The choice of the archive footage is first-rate – some of the images are astounding. The stand-out picture for me was the one the filmmakers used to illustrate the invaders’ trashing of the land’s resources – rows of buffalo skulls stacked in a heap about twenty metres in height with one European immigrant standing proudly in front, with another grinning inanely whilst precariously balancing on the top of the pile.

In the opening sequence, the director uses maps to great effect. I believe maps are an often neglected tool in documentary filmmaking and Aldag demonstrates how important they can be in providing meaning and depth to a depiction of a series of historical events. One of the maps that we see alters chronologically – so we can view in real time the shrinking of the Lakota homeland to the sliver of territory represented by the Pine Ridge reservation – a tremendous piece of footage.

The historical sketch is unashamedly polemical and no worse for that – the filmmakers’ aim is to portray the injustices perpetrated against the Lakota people. The introduction serves to make us of aware of a fundamental difference in the world view of the Lakota and the possessive individualism of the invaders – the contrasting approaches to control of natural resources. The difference is caught well by a quotation from a Lakota spokesperson read by the narrator:

We are the children of the land rather than its owners – how can we be owners of our parents?

Whereas for the invaders, and for us viewers living in a late capitalist system, land is owned and exploited for the benefits of the owner – individuals, corporations, or governments. Private Land – No Trespassing.

Having given us the historical context to the Lakota’s present situation, Aldag proceeds to investigate the people’s strategies for survival and resistance – these are based on two key themes: land and language. The investigation takes the form of interviews with Lakota activists from a variety of fields – we meet a nurse, educational professionals focused on promotion of the Lakota language, community activists, the head of the local radio station, a religious elder, and a shaman of advanced years. There is also a transitional coda to the introduction where we meet the representative of US power – the National Parks Warden.

Throughout the activists’ interviews, the Lakota’s aim of organising their lives around sustainability and respect for the natural environment rather than profit shines through. The footage prompts the viewer to wonder whether universal lessons might be learned from how this small community, one of the poorest in the US, operates. As Aldag’s title implies – the embers are being stirred to bring hope not just to the Lakota but to the wider world.

In some documentaries, talking heads interviews can drag but this is not the case with Embers of Hope. Aldag’s and co-writer Patrick Shan’s technique is to pose short, to the point, questions and then allow the interviewee time to think and then respond in depth. The editing is sharp and, without exception, the interviews are gems. Coming in at five minutes or so each, the responses provide a compelling account of the issues facing the Lakota. Although this is film, Aldag is unafraid to focus on the power of the human voice – the results are profoundly moving and reminded me of the work of the great oral historian, Studs Terkel – they are that good.

The interview with the Warden made me cringe when the narrator told us that they had left the tape running when the interviewee had requested to go off the record – but I suppose needs must when one is dealing with authority. However, the substance of the interview is innocuous – the Warden seems aware of the filmmaker’s political agenda and sticks to bromides on everybody’s favourites, those contemporary equivalents of apple pie and motherhood – diversity and inclusivity.

The range of subjects explored in the activists’ interviews is extraordinarily broad – viewers will learn, for instance, about the historical use of conscription (basically enslavement to fill the depleted ranks of the US military) of young Lakota to fight in the Vietnam War and the contemporary use of free meals to entice Lakota children to attend Christian evangelists’ bible classes.

Watch out for the inspirational scene where Andrew Ironshell describes the founding of the Thunder Valley Community and their work toward building a sustainable future for the Lakota – for more details of what they are trying to do https://www.thundervalley.org/ is well worth checking out.

The interview that had the most impact on me personally was with the shaman, Floyd Look For Buffalo Hand. Floyd sadly died after the completion of the movie and Embers of Hope is dedicated to their memory.

With a wry smile, Floyd lists all the gifts given to the Lakota by the White Man – alcohol, syphilis, guns, fast food, cars:

They give you everything to kill yourself.

Even for your cynical child-of-the-Enlightenment reviewer, Floyd’s description of being able to see a person’s feelings of anger and resentment as a colourful aura emanating from their body resonated and convinced.

The themes of land and language weave together throughout the interviews. The chief concern of the activists is asserting the claim for the return to their stewardship of the Black Hills which form the key part of the sacred geography of the Lakota’s animistic belief system. The tale of the Black Hills is a long and tortuous one characterised by bad faith and chicanery on the part of the US government but essentially, decades ago, Congress passed a law to purchase the land from the Lakota and deposited money into a bank account. The Lakota have refused to take the money and continue to press for the return of their sacred space. With the help of some judicious editing, Aldag enables the interviewees to make their case and allows us to make sense of the convoluted storyline.

As with other peoples across the globe, trapped in the cage of the nation state system, the Lakota see maintenance of their language as a living, and above all spoken, tongue as fundamental to their community’s survival. In the film’s final interview, Dee Du Pont, a Lakota language teacher, lays down a marker for the importance of an oral culture. Du Pont stresses that with the globalised transition to a written culture our abilities to listen and retain have been eroded – this got me to reflect on what I have lost in my own English language culture – pace the Enlightenment’s sacralisation of the text.

Given the movie’s focus on the existential importance to the community of the Lakota language, it is appropriate that music plays little part in Aldag’s conjuring of the realities of the Lakota world. I can imagine a less confident director smothering us in a soundscape of ambient music to provide an atmosphere whereas Aldag relies simply on the spoken word.

Another demonstration of the skill and competence of the director is they are sparing in their use of landscape shots. Pine Ridge is in a rather nice part of the planet – in a National Park – with the big skies of the Great Plains set against the majestic outline of the Black Hills. Many directors would have piled in and turned the movie into a tourist video, but Aldag’s relentless focus is on humanity – the Lakota people. On occasion, when an interviewee is telling us about a particularly numinous sacred site, the director will hit us with a single shot of a stunningly beautiful landscape but then, bam, back to the speaker…less is definitely more here.

There were a just couple of narrative approaches in the movie that did not work for me.

The country of submission of Embers of Hope is France and the opening sequence – the historical sketch – takes a Eurocentric approach – it feels that it is aimed at a European audience which is a pity as the work is of such global significance. The narrator approvingly quotes two of the famous thinkers of the European Enlightenment – Voltaire and Rousseau. The problem here is both these thinkers had somewhat ambivalent attitudes to the peculiar institution that enabled the European exploitation of the Americas. Voltaire thanked a Bordeaux slave trader who had named one of their ships The Voltaire whilst Rousseau, though condemning slavery in the abstract, never had the temerity to condemn the actuality of the industrial system of slavery that allowed France to extract fabulous wealth from its West Indian colonies.

One reading of history is that Floyd Look For Buffalo Hand’s and the Lakota people’s problems owe a hell of a lot to the Enlightenment and to the thoughts of Voltaire’s and Rousseau’s British forerunner, John Locke, on property rights. But so it goes…maybe a world historical perspective would have been helpful here.

Aldag uses a cliché of the travel documentary just once in the movie and it jarred for me. As a continuity shot between the interviews, we see, I think it is the interviewer who I assume is Aldag’s co-writer, on several occasions riding a motorbike to make their way around the reservation. The footage is a conceit because we know the camera person and sound person will have to follow them – this is fantasy travel. A contribution to the oddity of the sequences is that the bike, I assume it’s the de rigeur Harley-Davidson, is fitted out with skeuomorphic leather saddle bags presumably to evoke a Western cowboy rugged individualist aesthetic. All very strange and did not sit well with the movie’s communalist ethos – an electric bicycle would have been more fun and a better fit.

The elephant in the room, and it is a monumental one, is Mount Rushmore. Rushmore is the site of a set of crazed Ozymandias rock carvings from the mid-twentieth century which depict four US Presidents. Probably most viewers will know the monument from its use as the location for the one of the great climactic action scenes in Hitchcock’s seminal 1959 movie – North by Northwest.

The Mount happens to be situated in the Black Hills and I assume violates the sanctity of the Lakota’s sacred space. During the motorcyclist’s various peregrinations, we catch glimpses on the horizon of the grim presidential visages staring out over the reservation – one would be hard put to imagine a more fuck off assertion of white imperialism over a subject people. Yet Aldag makes no reference to the images – it is an omission that certainly puzzled me.

The above points are essentially disagreements with the director as to interpretation – they do not greatly detract from Aldag’s achievement in making one of the most powerful documentary films I have seen in a long time. By intelligently crafting an accessible medium by which the voice of the Lakota can be heard, the director has shown that it is possible to imagine a better way, for all of us, of living our lives that does not involve trashing the planet.

And maybe even allows us to imagine – instead of the end of the world – an end to capitalism. That is no small thing.

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