Rise Up!: Director and producer Michelle Latimer speaks about VICE’s Indigenous doc series ‘RISE’

RISE director Michelle Latimer
Courtesy of VICE.

RISE is an extraordinary documentary series, which explores the lives and politics of Indigenous people in Brazil, Canada and the United States. Told with verve and compassion, the show addresses ecology as well as the fraught history of Native peoples in the Americas to tell truthful stories of what is happening in such places as Standing Rock, Winnipeg’s northside and southeastern Brazil. Toronto’s Michelle Latimer, who is a Metis/Algonquin filmmaker and curator, directed and was the showrunner for RISE. She wrote and developed the nine docs, which were produced by VICE Canada in partnership with Rogers Media and APTN (Aboriginal People’s Television Network).

POV editor Marc Glassman spoke to Michelle Latimer about RISE, as the show was about to be broadcast on VICE Canada. —Marc Glassman
Note: A second part of POV’s interview with Latimer will run shortly.

ML: Michelle Latimer
POV: Marc Glassman

POV: Tell me about how RISE started. Did VICE approach you or did you approach them?

ML: I was approached by Eddy Moretti, one of the chief creative officers of VICE. When the VICE Canada channel was conceived, RISE was one of his projects that he really wanted to see be made. I got a call in the spring of 2015, just sort of headhunting me and asking, “We see that you do this kind of work; are you interested in doing something like this with us?” The conversation continued until they hired me in August of 2015. RISE is technically eight one-hours, but then there’s a ninth version which is…Well, they’re normally 45 minutes for a television one-hour, and then I made another one, a ninth, that’s 68 minutes. So we made nine films in a year and a half.

POV: Astonishing! A lot of work.

ML: It was. I’ve had very little sleep, Marc! I’m getting delirious! I directed, and produced, and story-edited, and wrote all of them. All nine.

POV: What was it like working with VICE’s resources, allowing for travel and time?

ML: It’s kind of my dream! As an independent filmmaker, it would take me a year to two years to finance one of these films. But to make nine in a row, and have the resources to do it that quickly? I mean sometimes it felt like maybe it was too quickly, but at least the stories are going to get out in a timely fashion that could effect change. That’s what having a platform like VICE offered, which was really appealing to me.

POV: Was there a chain of command you had to deal with?

ML: We have a research team of associate producers and researchers, which would work really closely together to develop the stories and pitch them. We had a lot of creative room there. VICE’s producers always wanted to make sure that there was enough of a story to support a one-hour film but really I thought there was a lot of leeway and trust. “If your team feels that this is an important story to tell, let’s find a way to tell it.” We would pitch to executives in New York and I’m very lucky, my executive, Bernardo Loyola, happens to be a very successful editor. That’s very helpful because he really understands the process. And Tania Natscheff was the exec on the Canadian side. Bernardo was really amazing because it’s so rare that you have somebody who understands the process from a craft level and I really thought that our dialogue as an executive and a director—we’re very close—I thought he definitely made the films better and I definitely learned a lot from working with him.

POV: What is your relationship like with the host, Sarain Carson-Fox?

ML: I think the thing that benefits RISE is that Sarain is Midewin, which is from the medicine lodge of the Anishinaabe people. Her ability to connect with people on a ceremonial level is excellent. There are cultural protocols when you go into our communities that are often not abided by because it’s often not Indigenous people making these films. And so when we would come and offer tobacco or engage in ceremony or consult the elders before cameras even went on, that really made the difference in the process.

As an Indigenous crew, how we came into the story helped our access immeasurably. I’m really proud of that. When you’re shooting, especially on a TV schedule, you’re shooting fast, so it takes that much longer to do those protocols. But sometimes we wouldn’t even turn our camera on for half a day because we’d be consulting elders and making sure we had the blessing of the community to move forward. That’s something we often don’t talk about but it was actually a really important part of the process of making RISE.

POV: What were the time limits like?

ML: Things are pretty tight. We generally made the films on eight to nine days shooting. Luckily I shot with DOPs that I’ve worked with for years in my own independent filmmaking. We had a shorthand, and I’m really comfortable with verite but it really taught me about myself, about knowing what I want to achieve when I go into a scene. Knowing what is the purpose of the scene, in the story that we’re telling, and being able to listen and think about that: it taught me to be more organised as a director.

POV: Sacred Water was shown at Sundance. [All three films mentioned in this interview were at the festival—Editor’s Note.] It’s about the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation taking a stand against the U.S. government’s attempt to build a pipeline through their ancestral lands. It’s become a huge political issue in recent months. Can you talk about how you came to be there?

ML: With respect to Sacred Water, to me, the film couldn’t have been made without Ladonna Brave Bull Allard. That was her land, which was at risk; it was her initiative to have the camp, where we shot and where the resistance is centred. It’s her face that represents the people, in the sense that she will call the warriors and when she’ll call, they’ll come. I am just so impressed with that resilience and just her… she was just adamant! Like “when I call them they will come.” One of the things that was unusual in Standing Rock was that it’s a matriarchal-led movement—but nobody really talks about that.

At the beginning we didn’t know if Standing Rock was even a story. When we showed up, there was no media on the ground and there were twenty people in a camp. There was a presence of surveillance—helicopters that you see in the film, that kind of thing, and the encroaching pipeline—but there wasn’t the police presence that we saw later in Standing Rock. There was none of that. So as a filmmaker there was a part of me that’s thinking, I don’t really know if there’s a story here. But I felt something happening. I thought, “I’m just going to follow this story and if it ends up being a small film about the beginnings of an occupation camp that really doesn’t go anywhere, that’s ok, there’s value in that. Maybe it’s a film about faith and about community.” But as the film progressed and as the timelines progressed it exploded into the Standing Rock we know now—and nobody could’ve seen that coming, nobody—it was kind of incredible to realise that we were the ones who were on the ground at the beginning when nobody was there.

And so I think the narrative that you’re going to see coming out of Standing Rock is largely going to be about The Law, the Dave Archambaults [leading the official Indigenous resistance], the legal fight, the police brutality. And that’s certainly an aspect of our second film that we follow up Sacred Water with, Red Power. But for me it was a larger exploration of the history of the land, the Sioux people’s relationship to this land, and the Sioux people’s history with the American government. And that context for me was missing. It was only in months of being there that I started to hear about the flooding of Sioux lands in order to build a dam; I started to hear about the forced relocation of the Sioux; and I thought ok, this is a much larger story. And that’s how those two films evolved. It started as a very personal story and went into a larger, wider contextualisation of the history of the Oceti Sakowin Nation.

Courtesy of VICE

POV: Can you talk about a really articulate figure in Sacred Water and Red Power, Nick Estes?

ML: My interest in the Sioux area actually started because I read an article that Nick wrote, which encapsulated the fight. So much of the other stuff I read focused on the police brutality and that’s a very real aspect of what’s going down there. I don’t want to take away from that, but when I read his article in Indian Country Today, about the history of the Oceti Sakowin Nation and I read the brutalities that have been going on since the 1800s, I had chills down my spine. I just couldn’t believe the parallels to today. How could we be in 2016 and it’s not that different from the 1800s? It’s just different weapons! I just found it so chilling.

So I phoned Nick up. And I said, “I want to talk to you about your article.” Then that conversation led into another conversation and led into another until I said, “I need to interview you!” Everything just grew and blossomed from there. It was a very organic process. I went to VICE and said, “I really think we need to make another film here. There’s more to the story.” And VICE is amazing! I actually said, “I want to break the format. I don’t want a host. I want to do studio interviews with the Interrotron.” And they were like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, this isn’t at all like your series!” And I said, “these are the reasons why.” And they came back with, “100% go for it. We support you.”

POV: What do you think about American Indian Movement [AIM]?

ML: I’d heard about AIM but mostly around Wounded Knee and Alcatraz. And obviously John Trudell is such an iconic figure for my generation. A real poet. So yeah, I heard the stories of AIM. But I never really knew that much about the women in AIM and even to this day it’s difficult to find information on them. It’s more like they were behind the scene, behind the leaders, Dennis Banks and Russell Means, you know?

It was very interesting to finally meet women, who had been part of AIM. But also I’d never thought in my lifetime, and this was a sentiment I heard a lot in Standing Rock, that our generation would be asked to step up in a similar way, in a fight that’s even larger than anything AIM ever did or was ever involved in. And I think that was really powerful because I think there were lots of young Indigenous people who were maybe waiting or hoping for an opportunity and when this purpose came, it ignited a lot of us. I thought that the kind of awakening that’s on Standing Rock was really, really powerful, because you saw people with a lot of pride in their identity and culture. And a lot of interconnections. Like Nick says in Red Power, “You can take away our land but you can’t take away this experience.” This experience that we’ve had is going to last generations and we will be informed by that. That’s what I think was so exciting. I think in the 60s that’s what AIM offered a lot of people who’d been forced to relocate to the cities. They found each other in these communities and they organised. But for us, Standing Rock did that for a lot of my generation and younger.

POV: Russell Means’ son is there.

ML: Yeah he’s amazing; he’s still out, fighting! He was out at the drill padlock, then at Standing Rock, and the police were shooting water cannons at him. This is still going on. I love being able to intercut his footage with his dad’s archival. It was almost like having a conversation on screen. It’s funny because I’ve seen so many films about the Civil Rights movement in black America and I’m always impressed by the archival. And I’ve often thought, I guess there’s no indigenous footage. Someone would have made a film if it existed. And then I started to dig and realised, oh my god, there’s so much footage! Why hasn’t anybody made these films about our history and our civil rights? It was really empowering to find some of that footage with Russell Means and John Trudell and be able to put it in the film. It’s exciting to see your people on screen and see what they fought for and to understand how that’s informed today.

POV: There’s one archival scene with Russell Means where he’s really passionate—-and gets angry.

ML: We kinda touch on AIM taking people to the United Nations, but one thing I couldn’t fully explore—and there’s so much history that I couldn’t—is when they got to the United Nations they fought for the declaration of Indigenous people. That’s where that came from. They declared themselves a red race. That’s where the United Nations’ declaration on Indigenous people came from. Kind of amazing!

Courtesy of VICE

POV: There’s a line in RISE about spirituality and sacred land and wondering how things would be different if it was churches that were being threatened.

ML: I wrote that line, that voiceover line, because it was something I thought about when I was there. If this was a cathedral or a burial ground or gravesite—you know, granite graves—you would never dig it up. You would never demolish a cathedral. Even in war! I think it’s because native people don’t demarcate land that way. One of our characters says, “We tell you it’s sacred but it’s not recognised because it’s not written in the books that it’s sacred.” Because ours is an oral culture. We don’t write things in books. I feel like there’s an accountability on people in indigenous communities to remember. You’re gifted a story and that story is your heritage and your responsibility. You have to tell those stories to your grandchildren. And it’s not really valued in the dominant culture: that idea of storytelling, that idea of ancestry, that idea of the land as a sacred, living partnership. It’s not something to be controlled, but a partnership that you live in balance with. But I actually think that the values are starting to come back because it’s not just Indigenous people that are seeing the effects on the planet. It’s all sorts of people.

POV: In Apache Stronghold there’s a scene with Roger Featherstone and Sarain.

ML: He says you can’t separate the spirituality from the ecology.

POV: Right. Ecology is a way in for some people to understand why Indigenous people are fighting so hard. There’s a powerful scene in Apache Stronghold in which Featherstone shows Sarain the shocking effect on the land of copper mining.

ML: I didn’t know! I remember Roger said, “I’m going to drive you to Oak Flat where we can have a beautiful lookout, but we’re going to pass the copper mine on the way.” He’s like, “Oh, you’ve never seen an open-pit copper mine? Oh well, wait, I’ll show it to you!” And we went around the corner and he’s like, “Look!” And it was shocking. That’s when we went back and got drone shots and everything. We were like, we need to make a moment of this. This is insane. But I think there were many moments like that throughout the shooting of these films. I’ll never forget showing up at a Brazilian river, the Rio Doce, and seeing it dead. It’s a brown, muddy river. It used to be pristine and blue. It’s just, it’s so sad.

POV: In Sacred Water there is a lot of talk about dams. People like Ladonna evoke how beautiful the land—and the life—was before the US government built the dams. This was in the ‘50s. It wasn’t a massacre but in so many ways, it was. Did you learn lots while making the film?

ML: Every day! It was such a journey as a filmmaker, because not only did I get to meet these incredible people and be gifted their stories—it’s a huge responsibility but also a major honour—but then they would welcome me into their homes and into their ceremonies, into their families! We were invited on a buffalo kill where we literally killed and skinned and drank the blood of the buffalo that was sacrificed: the highest honoured ceremony of the Sioux people. To be invited to be part of those experiences and to make connections with people on that level, it’s something that I’ll take with me my whole life.

It allowed me to understand myself as an indigenous person a lot deeper. But it also makes me much more of an advocate, even though I’ve always been. But now I’m even more of an advocate for Indigenous people needing to tell their own stories. Because we can offer something that’s different; we can offer insight and something of value.

Whenever I talk to young people that are making films, I always say, “Think about why you want to tell this story. Why are you the only person that can tell this story? What do you bring to this that makes it different than anyone else?” And I feel it’s the same for Indigenous people. It’s so important that we are telling our stories and going into our communities and voicing those things and not letting other people do that for us anymore. We have the ability and there’s never been a better time for it.

Part 2 of this interview is coming soon.
RISE is now streaming on VICE.
Watch episode 1 below!