Viceland’s new protest documentary series “Rise” had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, as the landmark film event has grown to include television in recent years. “Rise” takes a look at indigenous resistance movements, particularly Native American resistance, and the episodes screened at the fest covered the Standing Rock protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Apache Stronghold to protect Oak Flat.
Michelle Latimer directed “Rise,” and she was in Park City, Utah for the premiere. Latimer herself is Metis/Algonquin, indigenous tribes of Canada where she lives. Latimer spoke with Screener about the show, and some of the real life events that pertain to resistance and protecting rights. Edited for clarity and length.
We only really heard about Standing Rock publicly near the end. You were following it from the beginning. How early did you know there was a story there?
That’s really interesting. I didn’t know there was a story. I knew there were some really interesting people up against some really difficult things, but I didn’t know. When we were on the ground and it’s 20 people in an occupation camp, you could’ve never foretold what happened in Standing Rock now. We were just like, “I guess this’ll be a film about the beginnings of an occupation camp” and it just erupted.
I think you’re following your instincts as a filmmaker but you can never know where something’s really going. I certainly wouldn’t have thought it would become the biggest indigenous rights struggle, or occupation/resistance movement, that I’ve seen in our lifetimes, in 150 years…
Even a two-part episode is nothing compared to the months the protesters stayed there. How did you choose the moments to convey the time spent?
I don’t know if you can ever really convey what it feels like to be on the ground — with people shooting at you, and police violating people around you — every step of the way. It’s a war zone. It was a war zone absolutely. I’m still processing that — we just finished the film about a week ago: We’re still processing.
As a filmmaker, I think all you can do is be true to the stories that people are telling you, be true to the experience, try to make visual imagery that matches that, or upholds that. But there are certain things about Standing Rock that you’re only going to be able to know if you’ve really been there. I did my best. Knowing the experience of being there, and seeing the film, it’s always a bit different.
Certainly showing things like cooking made me realize, “Oh, this is how they eat every day.”
Oh, that’s nice. I can see what you mean — if you’re not there, you maybe don’t think about the everyday things, like how would you feed 10,000 people, for sure.
Does someone actually say “rise” in every episode?
Oh! It wasn’t intentional. That’s interesting. That would’ve been kind of clever! But no, I didn’t go about it with that thought — but I like it. It did happen a lot, organically, but it wasn’t something I was going for.
Did a lot of episodes expand beyond 44 minutes like the Standing Rock one?
That’s the exception. It’s the finale, and it does break format. I think because it’s the largest indigenous fight we’ve seen in 150 years, the most indigenous people coming together to fight in this kind of resistance movement, it definitely warranted and held that length. All the episodes are 45, and then we have the 68 minute version for the Standing Rock finale.
Why wasn’t the Apache Stronghold as big a news story as Standing Rock became?
I think Apache was, for a while. I think the level of corruption that you see in Apache Stronghold is very unique. You have Senator John McCain… The New York Times called it the largest case of corruption — the quote is in the film, I think — there was a cover-up that happened with the Stronghold, with Oak Flat. There was a political coverup. People didn’t want to know that John McCain slipped this rider, at the eleventh hour, into a must-pass military spending bill. I think that story was more of a cover-up than the other stories we’ve seen, that’s why maybe you didn’t see it in the news as much — but it’s going to hit back.
The Apache Stronghold is going to take the bill back this year, and do a cross-America tour to introduce the bill back into Congress and the Senate. They will be rising up again this year. You’ll hear more of them in the news.
What are the other episodes about?
We look at indigenous resistance that takes many forms. One maybe less traditional approach to indigenous resistance is — we have an episode on mixed martial arts fighting, which is set in the southwest. It’s young Navajo fighters. They’re using their traditional culture and ceremony to inform their training, as mixed martial arts fighters, preparing to fight in the Octagon or the UFC.
We have another episode that’s following a militant hip hop group called Savage Family. They use extremely graphic language and imagery to engage youth in the pursuit of decolonization. They’re very anti-censorship, anti-colonization, so they use their hip-hop as a means to help youth in some of the most marginalized communities in America.
Did you spend the same amount of time embedded with each story?
Yeah, with the exception of Standing Rock — which we did spend a lot more time on the ground — we would shoot between eight and ten days per episode. Sometimes we’d be on the ground longer than that just securing access, talking to characters, engaging with elders in the community to have permission to be in those communities.
Now that you’ve wrapped, what action might you be taking outside of ‘Rise’?
In Canada, our federal government just approved three major pipelines. There’s already whispering that when the snow melts, we’re going to see major action. I’m adapting a bestselling novel by Thomas King called “The Inconvenient Indian,” for the National Film Board of Canada and HBO. I’ll definitely be on the ground in the occupation camps. I’m also making a short film for Laura Poitras’s company Field of Vision. I’ll be doing a short film that looks at the sex trafficking in the Bakken region, the oil region of North and South Dakota.
Justin Trudeau is in “An Inconvenient Sequel,” accepting some of the environmental resolutions. But he’s still approving pipelines?
Mm-hmm. I didn’t see the movie. I didn’t have a ticket so I never got to see it.
The day after the inauguration, there were Women’s Marches everywhere. Do you think ‘Rise’ might follow those as they develop for future episodes?
I think there can be a lot to be learned from looking at some traditional indigenous communities that were inherently matriarchal in their government. The patriarchal society, the western society of today, doesn’t have this kind of leadership. The United States might have a female president well before now, if we actually embraced the matriarchal values that were inherent in some of our traditional societies.
That’s why I think in a place like Standing Rock, or some of these other places we visited, you see women leadership — and it’s not so weird, it’s not so groundbreaking. It’s what it’s always been.
How do I even start conversations with men who think including women is taking something away from them?
It’s interesting, the word you used was “starting conversations.” What I find, often, is that racism or violence are not about conversations at all. People are closed to conversations. That dialogue doesn’t happen at all. I think by living with different values, maybe that is how we can start a conversation — but I feel like we’re still a little ways away from those kinds of conversations.
The new narrative is, “You’re talking down to me — and if you’re talking down to me I don’t have to listen.” So how carefully do we have to walk on eggshells?
We’re sort of getting off the topic of “Rise,” but — the bigger issue is: I’m Canadian, but America has just voted in a president who is exemplifying behavior. If he is the leader of one of the most powerful countries in the world, if he is outwardly racist or misogynistic, it’s like saying to everyone else, “That’s okay. You can be like that, too — because look, the greatest leader of the greatest country is like that.” It sort of absolves responsibility, or accountability to one another. One of the things I’ve written about Standing Rock, when I’ve been writing my publicity, is: Standing Rock was a community that worked because there was no one leader. There was no policing. There was a collective accountability to one another. I think we’ve gotten away from that as a society.
Latimer’s eight-episode “Rise” airs Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Viceland.