The Role of Documentary in a Movement


Suree Towfighnia is a director, producer, DP, and documentary educator from Chicago, IL.

The Role of Documentary in a Movement

Date Posted: 
2013-04-15 00:00

Blog Series:

The greatest mistake of the movement has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first, then you'll get action. -Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements

We were invited by Producer Debra White Plume to present our current project and train participants on media activism as part of the Moccassins on the Ground 3-day frontline activism training, which took place in Manderson, SD in March.

We arrived in Lakota country mid-day, a couple days prior the training. KILI radio greeted us with the official event PSA, inviting all to: “Come on out and stop Transcanada from entering Lakota Territory…Protectors of Mother Earth must be ready”. It felt good to be back on Lakota land. The vast landscapes dotted with horses and families are an instant reminder of the what’s at stake in the work to protect the land, water and people.We’re I’m from in Chicago, open land is a symbol of future development. Out here land is a connection to the past and a promise to the future.

We pulled into Kiza Park for an afternoon meeting with Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) and the Lakota Media Project to discuss the rundown for the event. Vic Camp from Owe Aku introduced us to the various participants and organizations that had already arrived, people intimately involved in blockading the Keystone XL pipeline. Shortly after, we realized we were with THE people from the frontlines: those who chained themselves to pipes, lived in trees, risked imprisonment, fines, personal injury, those who circled the White House in direct actions, who came from all corners of the continent to share wisdom and experience with others ready to give their life to stop the Tar Sands from being piped across the water and lands. It’s an inspiring feeling to be among such a dedicated group of believers willing to give everything to protect sacred land and water. It’s that energy that fuels our work.

Our initial project on the Lakota territory currently known as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation began over ten years ago. We were making a documentary about farmers interested in growing industrial hemp. At the time, most people still saw hemp as marijuana—not the billion-dollar crop it is today. A handful of farmers were fighting to decriminalize hemp (and continue to fight). But it was only the Lakota who used their sovereign and treaty rights to pass tribal legislation that decriminalized hemp. You can view our film Standing Silent Nation to see the story of what happened to the White Plumes and their field of dreams. However, what we began when we innocently arrived for a few days to film a hemp harvest was a relationship that has grown into our dedication to document stories of resistence from the frontlines of the battles to protect the earth.

Again, the people and families on Pine Ridge are our collaborators on our current feature, Crying Earth Rise Up. The film follows the intimate story of a few Lakota activists and mothers who have questions about the contaminated water their people are drinking and concerns over the expansion of uranium mining into their region’s largest source of freshwater. Debra White Plume, is a lead plaintiff in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission case to prevent the renewal of the license to mine uranium by an existing mine company.

Since beginning our documentary in 2010, the subject of uranium has often been in the news. The goal of our project is to show another side of this timely story—one that’s not about “clean” uranium as a positive solution to America’s energy dependence. But a story about the impact that water contaminated with the heavy metals has on a community and a way of life. Lives have been prematurely lost. Babies have been born with severe medical abnormalities. Our film is in the middle of the editing process and serves to entertain and educate audiences, policy makers and stakeholders about the true cost of uranium. As such, outreach and education have been at all phases of the project from its inception and will continue until the time when it’s not needed anymore.

So when we were invited to be a trainer at Moccassins on the Ground, we put our editing on hold and began working on our curriculum. We collaborated with members of the Lakota Media Project and the Great Plains Tarsands Resistance on a workshop that focused on “Documenting your Movement: Working with the Media and Being the Media”.

This training is a message to President Obama and TransCanada that if they try to build KXL we’ll be here to meet them with our moccasins on the ground. -Debra White Plume

Debra has spent the better part of the past ten years working on preventing the expansion of uranium mining and blocking the Tar Sands XL pipeline. Both fights aim to stop corporate greed and promote the protection of the land, water and people.

The training began with introductions from each group of the over 200 participants. We became comfortable sharing where we were from, how we were connected and why we came. To put a face and story on the issue and to give perspective to the mostly non-Lakota allies, we screened a short video of our project. The gym housing the training was silent, as people heard the story of one of our characters, Elisha Yellow Thunder, a young Oglala Lakota whose daughter was born with extreme medical conditions after she drank contaminated water during her pregnancy. The reality of where we were and why we came become clearer as the audience learned of Laila’s fight to get a kidney. The audience learned from the characters in the film the history of corporate interest in the minerals and metals in their territory. The title of our project comes from a Lakota prophecy from 1938 (XX) that “someday the Earth will weep, she will cry with tears of blood. And you will make a choice, whether you help her or let her die. And when she dies you too will die.”

The room was silent as non-Lakota absorbed the reality of the depth of the struggle we all face to protect unci maka, the Lakota words for Mother Earth (grandmother of all that came before). We ended the first night with music and performance by those who use their voice to sing in support of the movement. For an opening evening, it set the tone for the important work that was about to take place in the training.In the afternoon on the second day, our workshop began. Our role in coming was to speak on positive strategies for documenting your movement. The workshop time was divided between four options: our media training; medic training; frontline tactics; and banner/t-shirt making. We had over 30 people attend our section, ranging from 8 years old to many elders. The goal of the workshop was to identify what people were interested in learning and then teach to their interest. I moderated the flow and began with introductions. Diversity was one of the first things I noticed about the group.

Although we were on Lakota land and in a Lakota school, more than half of the participants came from far distances. Ranchers interested in protecting their vital water, buddhists concerned with the destructive practices of tar sands mining, people from nearby towns (120+ miles away) who didn’t want to see uranium mining and pipelines cross their streets and others who were interested in learning the camera to be ready if the time came where that became their weapon. We identified a few main areas of interest: communicating with mainstream media; getting comfortable with the technical aspects; delivering a clear message; and writing press releases. The Lakota Media Project had six young women and girls both participating and documenting the workshop. In a beautiful way, elders shared stories that were used for examples on how to present stories in a compelling way. We discussed the various types of media and how messages change depending on the format (IE: radio, live television, tv news, article, internet, twitter, etc).

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil ..... to one who is striking at the root. - Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Overall the response was positive from attendees. It was a lot of information to receive and much to practice in a short amount of time. But we hope participants learned some strong tactics to help present their work to fight the environmental destruction they face in their home communities. A final goal of the workshop was to keep connected to each other, to help spread the word about what important battles we are waging and how we can increase community awareness. The feeling in the air was that a few dedicated people with a clear message and with powerful media tools, can create important work to support positive and big changes.

Stay tuned. Much more to come.
Best, Suree

Suree Towfighnia is directing Crying Earth Rise Up scheduled for release later this year.

For more information about the film, our outreach, or to make a donation or get involved, email, follow us on twitter, or visit the Facebook Page: Crying Earth Rise Up.



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