Aside from its opening and closing scenes, the The Activist, co-starring Michael Spears, restricts its action to a jail, where two men are being held. Courtesy of First Peoples Festival
Photograph by: Courtesy of First Peoples Festival
Being a white man from France didn’t stop Cyril Morin from making his first feature about a pivotal moment in American aboriginal history. After all, the first-time director was already stepping out of his comfort zone, having established himself as a prolific soundtrack composer with a CV going back 25 years.
Morin’s recent credits include creating scores for Ron Fricke’s globe-trotting 2011 audio-visual odyssey Samsara, and the first season of the TV series Borgia. But providing musical accompaniment was not enough; after all this time, Morin yearned to make his own movies.
“I wanted to be in charge of my own projects,” said the director, who will present his feature debut The Activist, Thursday evening as part of Montreal’s First Peoples Festival. “I love making music for films. I’ve done almost 100. I’ll always love music. But I want to work on stories. I always told stories with music, but they were never perceived as stories. Now I’m making something people can understand, and see. It’s a different phase.”
The Activist tells the story of the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff, in which approximately 200 Oglala Lakota tribe members seized and occupied the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in a protest over land treaty issues.
The United States Marshals Service and FBI were called in. The 71-day standoff attracted widespread media attention and public support. Marlon Brando famously boycotted the 1973 Oscars, sending aboriginal civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline his award for best actor for The Godfather.
That moment is shown on a TV screen in The Activist, as is an imagined meeting involving Brando. Aside from its opening and closing scenes, the film restricts its action to a jail, where two men are being held — a white lawyer (Chadwick Brown), with emotional and political ties to the aboriginal community, and an aboriginal man (Michael Spears).
Though the drama Morin created is fictional, the events at Wounded Knee, which serve as the backdrop to the narrative, are real.
“The duration of the story is based on the duration of the insurrection,” he said. “The story stays true to the events that took place, including dates, and commentary. But I allowed myself to interpret the facts to tell my own little story.”
Shooting most of the movie in a single location with just a handful of actors allowed Morin to keep costs to a minimum for the self-financed project.
“It’s a small production,” he said. “I had to find ways to talk about the (bigger) story, to relay information while creating tension. I wouldn’t have had the means to show everything going on outside. I had to find things happening outside and bring them in.”
His biggest decision involved casting. Having originally written a script involving two aboriginal characters, Morin began to question the legitimacy of his voice as an outsider.
“I saw a report on (American aboriginal author-actor-activist) John Trudell, who said in an interview that he doesn’t like whites speaking for him. I said, ‘He’s right.’ So I changed my main character to a white lawyer, with long hair, who has invested a lot in the aboriginal cause. It reflected more what I was.”
Morin’s interest in aboriginal issues goes back to his youth. Watching cowboy movies, he always related to the Indians. He went on to read books and poetry by aboriginal authors, and learn about their history. So it was only natural, when seeking a topic for his first film, to turn to Wounded Knee.
“I had heard about this rebellion for a long time,” he said. “I wanted to revisit it, in detail. … (The film’s message) is that there’s always a way to fight, and confront the system. History is made up of little stories.”
The Activist screens Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Cinémathèque québécoise, 335 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., as part of Montreal’s First Peoples Festival, which continues to Aug. 5. Director Cyril Morin will be on hand to introduce the film. For tickets and information, visit presenceautochtone.ca
Other film highlights of the First Peoples Festival include: Sydney Freeland’s edgy drama Drunktown’s Finest, which premièred at the Sundance Film Festival, Friday at 6:30 p.m. (with the director in attendance); Dennis Allen’s documentary Crazywater, addressing alcoholism among aboriginals, Sunday at 2:30 p.m.; Joel Montanez’s doc-fiction hybrid The Healing Winds, about the painful legacy of residential schools, Sunday at 6:30 p.m.; and Max Perrier’s horror film Feed the Devil, co-presented with Fantasia, Monday at 8:30 p.m. All the above screenings are at Cinémathèque québécoise.
The festival also presents nightly concerts at Place des Festivals, including: rapper Samian, Thursday at 8:30 p.m.; an “Electro-choc” party, with Chris Derksen, A Tribe Called Red’s DJ Shub and Acid Arab, Friday at 8:30 p.m.; singer-songwriters Beatrice Deer and Sinuupa, Saturday at 8:30 p.m.; and an evening of emerging aboriginal talent, Sunday at 7 p.m.Tags: actor, concert, dates, director, film, movie, music, singer, tv