By Matt Hume, November 28 2017 —
Until Nov. 30, Calgary’s Plaza Theatre is screening Neither Wolf Nor Dog, directed by Steven Simpson. The American, crowd-funded independent film was shot at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota and is based off of the novel of the same name by Kent Nerbum. It stars Dave Bald Eagle, who passed away in July 2016 at the age of 97, alongside Alberta’s Roseanne Supernault.
Despite a small crew and low budget, the film centres around a modern road trip in Lakota Country and has been well-received across North America. Simpson says the success comes from independent charm, emotional connections and strong performances.
“One thing the film has in abundance is heart,” he says. “And that’s the one thing that no blockbuster budget can buy.”
The film’s climax features an emotional improvisation from Bald Eagle at Wounded Knee, the site of multiple conflicts between Sioux people and American authorities, the first of which left 15 Sioux dead in 1890. Simpson says this decision to stray from the source material was worth the gamble of improvising such a critical moment.
“We were hitting such a deep, true note in the performances that what was on the page turns out a bit contrived by that point. It revolved too much around [the author’s eponymous] character, not the elder. So I threw away the novel and I threw away the script and had Dave Bald Eagle improvise the whole sequence,” Simpson says. “He went to a very, very deep place inside of himself. It was incredibly powerful and it’s very close up and the audience is experiencing it as if they were standing there.”
Simpson says the intimacy of a small cast and crew made moments like this possible.
“Because we had such a tiny crew, it allowed the actors to really be transported into the landscape they were in,” he says. “[Bald Eagle] could have never gone to that place if it were a crew of 50 people standing behind him.”
Bald Eagle’s performance is certainly a highlight and draw for Neither Wolf Nor Dog. A Chief and D-Day veteran, his obituary was for a time the most wide-read article on the BBC. Simpson says his true-life personality shines in the film.
“[Bald Eagle] was just made of stronger stuff than most people you’ll ever meet. He was fearless — a very, very funny man and he had a very striking face but it was most beautiful when he was being mischievous,” Simpson says. “I didn’t find out until some time after when I was chatting with his wife, Josee, that he hadn’t been well leading up to the film and I hadn’t been told this — he was getting around on a motorized scooter before this and I didn’t know.”
In addition to Bald Eagle and Supernault, the film stars Christopher Sweeney, Richard Ray Whitman, Tatanka Means and Zahn McClarnon.