Twenty years ago Courtney Hermann saw something she absolutely needed. When electronic stores released the first VHS recorders the then 15-year old Hermann for some reason knew she couldn’t live without one. Too young to afford this new technology, the teenager turned to her parents.
“It might be the only thing that I ever really, truly, begged for,” says Hermann.
Thankfully, her parents gave-in to her request and unknowingly started her career in filmmaking. Now 35, she parted ways with her prized VHS recorder long ago. Her passion for filmmaking, however, remains intact.
More specifically, documentary filmmaking has captured Hermann’s interest.
“Documentary is an incredibly powerful medium through which we can understand people as human beings,” says Hermann.
“It allows us to see new things in a kind of familiar way, and allows us to see familiar things in a kind of new way.”
Much of Hermann’s recent work has been done with Suree Towfignia. The two met at graduate school for film and video production at Columbia College in Chicago where they shared a technical coordinator position. It was at this job that the two decided to create a documentary on hemp farming in the United States.
While compiling research on the subject, Hermann stumbled upon the story of Alex White Plume. At the time, White Plume was a Lakota farmer living on the Pine Ridge reservation. After attempts with other crops had failed, White Plume decided to grow hemp. Hemp is banned from growth but legal to possess in the United States.
Government agents had already raided White Plume’s farm during two previous harvests, but the persistent Lakota man was planning on a third harvest anyway. Intrigued by the story, Hermann and Towfignia took their cameras to the reservation.
“We showed up about ten minutes after Alex had been served, by federal agents, a summon to federal court.” Says Hermann.
“Then we just started rolling the cameras.”
The film was eventually used to create an hour long documentary entitled Standing Silent Nation. Almost five years later Hermann hopes the film will give people a better understanding of the situation at Pine Ridge.
“I believe that Standing Silent Nation can be a significant part of the evidence that is presented on behalf of the White Plume family, possibly to congress, that this is something that is not harmful and that is good for the economy in that area.”
Standing Silent Nation is scheduled for broadcast on July 3rd, on PBS. The timing for which a film is scheduled is very important because it affects what type of audience will be watching. The film will be shown as a part of the P.O.V series', 20th anniversary season, something Hermann is very excited about.
“I couldn’t be happier,” says Hermann.
“It’s an innovative program that has an excellent reputation for programming wonderful, important work.”
Once the film has been televised, the project as a whole is far from complete. In the weeks following the premiere Hermann will begin a program of outreach and education to ensure that the film’s message is relayed to as many people as possible.
“I’m looking forward to it (the broadcast) because it’s a realization of a goal, but I also know that it isn’t like I can lean back, relax and coast from there on a project…because it’s really just beginning.”
Equaling the actual film in importance is what documentary gives back to a filmmaker. For Hermann, the personal satisfaction that comes from the process of producing these films is just as rewarding as the completed film.
“You meet new people and you form connections that last long beyond the broadcast of a movie,” says Hermann.
“Documentary helps us understand other people, and it helps us understand ourselves.”
by Zach Oliva