Boarding-School Documentary Wins People’s Choice at Black Hills Film Festival
“During the audience discussion after The Thick Dark Fog, we hardly finished answering one question before someone would break in with another,” said Walter Littlemoon, Lakota. “People said, ‘I just didn’t know. I heard the horror stories, but I couldn’t believe them until I saw this movie.’”
He and his wife, Jane Ridgway, had just returned home to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation after a screening at the Black Hills Film Festival of The Thick Dark Fog, a documentary about Littlemoon’s recovery from the debilitating effects of the abusive boarding schools he attended as a child. “After the Q-and-A, people just swarmed us,” said Ridgway, who also appears onscreen in the film.
Director Randy Vasquez based the one-hour movie on Littlemoon’s memoir, They Called Me Uncivilized: The Memoir of an Everyday Lakota Man from Wounded Knee (iUniverse, 2009), a collaboration with Ridgway. Both book and movie describe the devastating legacy of psychological trauma, cultural disruption, language loss and social woes left by the government- or church-run institutions that Native children were required to attend from the late 1800s to the 1970s.
Seven years in the making and funded by Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), among others, The Thick Dark Fog won the People’s Choice Award at the Black Hills festival—its second honor. The movie’s first accolade was Best Documentary at the 2011 American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. The film’s uplifting thought—that one can heal from this and other traumatic childhood experiences—inspired the audience, according to the director. “There was hope,” said Vasquez, who is known for a compelling 2002 documentary about a Salvadoran activist, Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, and as an actor in popular television series and feature films.
In the months ahead, The Thick Dark Fog will appear at more festivals and venues and after June 9 will be shown on PBS. To find out when it’ll be shown in your area, contact your local public television station. It is also available on DVD from NAPT (www.nativetelecom.org).
Littlemoon feels that The Thick Dark Fog communicates so well because it relates personal experiences, and so has the ring of truth—as he put it, “Now people can fully understand.” In contrast, he said, much other material on boarding schools has been produced by authors he dubbed “parrots”: social scientists and historians working from official documentation of the institutions.
Winning the audience award was especially meaningful to Vasquez, who credited this success to the presence of several members of the film’s team. At the screening, he, Littlemoon and Ridgway were joined by producer Jonathan Skurnik, as well as Lakota participants Philomena Lakota and Chris Eagle Hawk, who had related their own boarding-school experiences onscreen, and child actor Manuel Yellow Horse Jr., who played the young Walter.
The team wanted the film not just to educate the broader public but also to be used in healing the Native community, according to Vasquez. Several audience members saw that possibility immediately, including a resident of Pine Ridge border town, Oelrichs, South Dakota, who asked about showing the documentary to a mixed white-and-Native Alcoholics Anonymous group. “My first reaction was that Native people seeing The Thick Dark Fog would be overwhelmed by terrible memories and should have a support system to help them through this,” Ridgway recalled. “The woman reassured us that AA does provide this kind of support. So, in fact, it was a great idea.”
Littlemoon and Ridgway were deeply affected by the presence in the audience of his Veteran’s Administration doctor, who set him on the path to healing years ago. The journey eventually led to a Harvard Medical School psychological-trauma expert, Jamie Shorin, who told Littlemoon he was suffering not from the more common Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but from the less-well-understood Complex Post Traumatic Stress, which arises from childhood ordeals. Once Littlemoon’s fear had a name, he could fight it and win, he said in the documentary.
“Walter’s doctor cried through the whole thing,” said Ridgway. “He had guided Walter on this journey, as well as through several serious illnesses. It was very emotional.”
Said Vasquez: “We felt the love for the film and its message.”