by Kerby Marcelin
SUNY Purchase film Professor James Spione’s ‘call-to-action’ documentary about the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock sparked conversations on environmental issues faced by Westchester County residents and neighboring tribes at the Ossining Public Library.
Directed by Oscar nominees Spione and Josh Fox with additional footage from Native journalist Myron Dewey, “Awake: A Dream from Standing Rock” graced the screen of the library’s Budarz Theater on Sept. 14 with dozens of people in attendance. The applauses and expressive murmurs in the room hinted at the subject’s relevance to the viewers. A panel discussion expanded on how relevant the environmental and social threats exposed in the film are to New York and the rest of the country.
“I am not an activist in the same sense as the people on this panel,” said Spione, responding to an audience member’s question. “I simply make films that I hope can activate people.”
Dwaine Perry—chief of the Ramapough Lenape Nation, a group of 5,000 people living around the Ramapo Mountains of Bergen and Passaic counties in northern New Jersey and Rockland County in southern New York—led the discussion. He criticized the authorities’ efforts to deny Native Americans their constitutional rights to protest, assemble, and practice their beliefs.
“What we really need is media coverage,” said Chief Perry, denouncing the lack of attention to Native American issues. “We need people to see what’s going on. Everything we do here is connected to Standing Rock.”
“Awake,” which premiered on Earth Day at the Tribeca Film Festival, captures the militarized police violence against the water protectors. In addition to the careful, cinematic arrangement of clips of peaceful protesters being hosed, maced, and shot with rubber bullets; the film, executively produced by actress Shailene Woodley, reveals the protestors’ resilience and the strength of their unity.
Most importantly, the documentary—driven through the voice of Sioux woman, Floris White Bull—mainly focuses on Native American figures fighting their own battles.
The pipeline threatens the water source for more than 17 million Americans and endangers indigenous sacred sites. It seemed like a “sweet victory” for green groups when the Obama Administration blocked the construction of the DAPL. However, within three days in office, President Trump signed an executive order to resume its construction.
This decision pushed environmentalists to take action. Following the screening and panel discussion, local activists shared brief pitches and flyers to motivate people to join the campaign against the Algonquin pipeline expansion at Indian Point and partake in an interfaith vigil for climate justice at the Mariandale Center.
Spione has directed several critically-acclaimed documentaries such as the Emmy-nominated “Silenced” and “Incident in New Baghdad,” which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2012. The Intro to Digital Filmmaking’s instructor said his Standing Rock experience was challenging, but powerful. He began the journey simply by assembling his equipment and buying a plane ticket to North Dakota.
“You’re not going to make a lot of money making documentaries,” said Spione, who received his BFA in film at Purchase in 1985. “You just gotta find an issue you care about and present it as powerfully as you can. You gotta go with your heart.”