The sweeping plains of North Dakota are naturally cinematic, its tall windswept grasses and blue river bends forming an image as American as apple pie. During the months-long protests at the Standing Rock reservation over the Dakota Access Pipeline’s demolishing of sacred Native burial grounds, this grand landscape became a bittersweet backdrop for images of peaceful protesters barraged by water cannons and choked by tear gas. Until now, these images reached the outside world only as shaky iPhone video, a drone shot, or a colorful still overlaid with inspirational text.
Those visuals form a cohesive whole in “Awake, a Dream From Standing Rock,” an evocative wake-up call told as a visual poem. This new documentary from executive producer Shailene Woodley (“Divergent”) was co-directed by Josh Fox(“Gasland”) and James Spione (“Incident in New Baghdad”), with additional footage from Native journalist Myron Dewey, and a script co-written by Native activist Floris White Bull, who narrates the film.
Woodley emerged as a high-profile ally for the #NoDAPL movement when she was arrested for trespassing at Standing Rock last October. The film moves from the summer of 2016, when demonstrations began, to the current and disheartening pipeline status. White Bull’s voiceover narrates the events with a reflective poem, recounting symbolic dreams and hopeful visions. Like any great poem, her musings uncover hidden truths with their simplicity: “Was this a vision of the future? The present? The past?”
Though the landscape is breathtaking, the film’s most shocking images are environmentally foreboding: Rivers on fire, rainforest greenery dripping in oil, cars overturned by roiling flood waters. Most disturbing, perhaps, is a color-coded map of planned pipelines, or those already in existence, flowing in black and red throughout the continental United States. “The black snake has been prophesied for generations,” said White Bull.
Those who followed the story closely may not learn anything new from “Awake,” but it is still devastating to hear that initially, the pipeline’s route was miles from Turtle Island, the sacred burial ground later demolished by Energy Transfer’s bulldozers. An early lawsuit filed by the Standing Rock Sioux showing multiple sacred sites threatened by the pipeline essentially became a road map used by Energy Transfer to re-route construction and inflict the most damage.
Another chilling moment comes from an anonymous 911 call, as a shaky female voice reports an attack on unarmed civilians. When the 911 operator offers to send police to the site, caller explains it is the police doing the attacking. Confused, the 911 operator says there is nothing he can do if the police are already on the scene. “Who protects the people from the police?” she asks.
The film opts not to follow a one subject closely; instead, it aims for a pastiche from multiple interview subjects, mostly Native. While this technique seems to say “We are all in this fight together,” it makes it difficult to latch onto anything beyond the timeline. Dewey, whose extensive drone footage made him one of the most closely followed journalists to come out of the movement, appears only in the latter third of the film. As North Dakota police officers follow his car and call him by name without providing theirs, the film offers a small glimpse into the life of a demonstrator on the ground. A few more moments like that would have done much to ground the story in specifics.
“Awake, a Dream From Standing Rock” not only serves as a vital record of one of the biggest protest movements since Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matter, but its events are also fresh. That swift response, a wake-up call, in the form of a visual poem, is a testament to the filmmakers’ artistry, and urgency. As White Bull says: “I am not dreaming. I’m awake. I have been woken by the spirit inside me that demanded I open my eyes and see the world.”
“Awake, a Dream From Standing Rock” premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.