“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is a sensitive feature film that made its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2016, and as it comes to Pasadena — the home of its star Christopher Sweeney — it is still on its first-run theatrical release, the longest such release in at least a decade.
Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson adapted Kent Nerburn’s 1995 award-winning novel about a Minnesota-based white author, also named Kent Nerburn, who during a period of mourning for his father gets a phone call from the granddaughter (Roseanne Supenault) of an elderly Native American man. Her grandfather, Dan (the late Chief David Bald Eagle), doesn’t talk on the phone and lives 400 miles away.
Nerburn’s “To Walk the Red Road,” a book filled with memories from Native Americans in Minnesota, caught Dan’s attention, and his granddaughter warns, “It’s important; he’s old.”
The 95-year-old Lakota elder lives in a small clapboard shack with an outhouse on a field of yellowed grass. Once Nerburn arrives, Dan cautiously questions him. Dan’s had lots of experience with white people, saying, “White people who work on the res … never liked them much. Mostly full of bullshit. Wear Indian jewelry, low ponytails. Talk about the Great Spirit.” Nerburn, luckily, is “turquoise-free” and devoid of a ponytail. Yet Dan is not convinced and wonders if Nerburn, “maybe discovered a Cherokee grandmother climbing up your family tree.” Dan makes clear that he’s met plenty of “social workers, missionary-types and old hippies.”
When Nerburn passes muster, Dan presents him with a box of papers with phrases and disparate thoughts about things like history: “When white people won it was a victory; when we won it was a massacre. When they fought for freedom it was a revolution; when we fought for freedom it was an uprising.” There are also cultural notes about how white people “can’t stand the silence,” but for the Native Americans “silence is stronger than words.”
Dan tells Nerburn, “I got lots more. I want you to fix them; make a book.” Holing up in a shabby hotel, Nerburn begins by organizing the scribblings into categories, but he hasn’t quite caught the spirit of the people of the Dakotas or understood Dan’s sadness over his dead son.
Dan’s friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) and Dan’s granddaughter remain critical of Nerburn’s initial essays. “You’ve got to learn to listen before you can see,” Grover tells Dan. Nerburn’s reluctant journey takes an unplanned turn, as does the movie.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” mixes fact with fiction. Nerburn published a book called “To Walk the Red Road: Memories of the Red Lake Ojibwe People” in 1989, which we see and is mentioned during the film. Yet the movie’s ending features an unscripted moment when Dave Bald Eagle speaks from his heart about the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The massacre began when soldiers ordered the deaf Black Coyote to surrender his firearm and the bewildered Black Coyote resisted.
Dave Bald Eagle was born in 1919, but one of his grandfathers, White Bull (1849-1947), led the assault against George Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He was raised speaking Lakota (a Sioux language) and his role as Dan was his last (His first was as an extra for the 1990 “Dances with Wolves”). He died at age 97 the month prior to “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” making its June premiere in Scotland.
While you might want to dismiss this as another white savior movie, the film directly addresses this through both Nerburn and the character Dan, who says, “The world is not an accident; we don’t always get to choose our parts.” Dan then tells Nerburn, “The creator has given you a task; you don’t get to turn back just because you want to.”
The real Nerburn continued his focus on Native Americans and this film both surrounds Sweeney with Native American actors and doesn’t ignore the problems of poverty and alcoholism.
Simpson lets this movie unfold slowly with unexplained silences punctuated by sparse dialogue. The emotional course of two men mourning — one for his father and one for his son — become the sign posts that bring these men together and tenuously link them before they reach a deeper understanding. If you are patient, this film will gently ask you to re-think the history you learned and the cultural bias that surrounds us. For filmmakers, Simpson’s determined course is another aspect that makes this film an important lesson in indie success.
The title comes from something that Sitting Bull supposedly said, that “Indians who live like white men are neither wolf nor dog.” The actual dog in this film, a waddling corgi, has an important role inasmuch as it is far removed from its wolfish ancestors.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” opens Sept. 13 at the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena.
In English and Sioux with English subtitles.