Randy Vasquez and Jonathan Skurnik
Randy Vasquez and Jonathan Skurnik
As a child, Walter Littlemoon, Lakota, was forcefully taken from his mother by the U.S. government and placed into a federally operated Native American boarding school on the Pine Ridge Reservation. There, Littlemoon and his peers received a cultural purging to erase their Native identity. Humiliation, beatings and abuse were a part of this process. Littlemoon’s traumatic experience at the boarding school became deeply rooted into his being, causing him great mental and emotional pain well into his adult years. He had a name for his mental unrest: “The thick dark fog.”
The new documentary, The Thick Dark Fog, by Director/Producer Randy Vasquez and Co-Producer Jonathan Skurnik, tells the story of how Littlemoon confronted the dark events of his past to help heal himself, his family, and other Native Americans suffering from similar trauma on the Pine Ridge Reservation and elsewhere.
“His (Littlemoon’s) mission was to let other Native folk around the country know that they can deal with what happened to them at the boarding schools--those that had a traumatic experience like he did,” Vasquez said.
Despite the impact of the boarding schools on Native communities, their contribution to Native culture and history has been largely withheld from America’s mainstream Native American narrative.
“Here was this legacy of oppression that was on par with slavery that American children don’t learn about in school,” Skurnik said.
Doing research for a screenplay, Vasquez got in touch with Littlemoon while looking into complex post traumatic stress disorder as it relates to Native American boarding schools. At the time, Littlemoon had just finished his book, They Called Me Uncivilized: The Memoir of an Everyday Lakota Man from Wounded Knee, co-written by his partner Jane Ridgway, that documented his boarding school memories. They sent Vasquez a manuscript.
“I was wowed by it,” Vasquez said.
Shortly thereafter, Vasquez proposed his idea of creating a documentary about Littlemoon. Liking the idea, Vasquez went to stay with Littlemoon and Ridgway at their home in Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and began filming The Thick Dark Fog.
Skurnik became involved as the film’s co-producer two years after Vasquez began the project. Seeking the assistance of a producer, Vasquez met Skurnik through doculink.org, “a want ads for documentary filmmakers,” Vasquez said.
Skurnik has previously done film work on a variety of human condition topics connected to oppression including disabilities, religious freedom, sexual orientation and poverty. He co-produced the award-winning ITVS documentary, A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay, a film about three welfare recipients in New York City who fight for a more just and effective welfare to work system.
Skurnik’s films focus on the effects of oppression and the ways people summon the will-power to heal themselves of the damage it has caused, and how they then bring that power and healing back to their community.
“That would be the common thread that links them all,” Skurnik said. “I think that comes from my own experience of wanting to find my own truth and my own vision for what I want to be in the world.”
Vasquez, also an actor, got his first on-screen role in 1983. He made his first documentary in 1996, Concert of the South, a short film about the Zapatista uprising in the Mexican state of Chiapas.
“In ‘96 I got fed up with it all and decided I wanted to make the world a better place and think of other people besides myself,” he said.
His award-winning 2002 feature documentary entitled Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, traces the journey of a Salvadoran political activist from her torture at the hands of a death squad in El Salvador to gaining asylum in the U.S.
“I think that the messages that these people are trying to get out are worthwhile,” Vasquez said.
As a filmmaker, Vasquez said he is most focused on films about disenfranchised people, people of color and “the voiceless that are struggling to have their voices heard.” The Thick Dark Fog is Vasquez’s third documentary.
“We’re going to finish this film and it’s going to get out into the world,” he said. “It will make positive change.”
Interviews were conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer.