On the trail

Stéphanie Gillard on travelling with the Lakota in The Ride.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Ride director Stéphanie Gillard at an Amanda Parer Intrude rabbit
The Ride director Stéphanie Gillard at an Amanda Parer Intrude rabbit Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Executive produced by Rouge International's Nadia Turincev and Julie Gayet (of The French Minister (Quai D’Orsay), directed by Bertrand Tavernier, based on Antonin Baudry's graphic novels), Stéphanie Gillard's The Ride with expansive cinematography by Martin de Chabaneix and atmospheric sound recording by Erwan Kerzanet (Léos Carax's unholy Holy Motors and Catherine Breillat's unflinching Fat Girl) takes us on the 300 mile pilgrimage on horseback of the Lakota people through the Badlands of South Dakota.

The Ride
The Ride

Jim Harrison's novels, Arthur Penn's Little Big Man with Dustin Hoffman, Misty Upham and Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P: Psychotherapy Of A Plains Indian, William Heise and William K.L. Dickson's Sioux Ghost Dance for Thomas Edison, and how the filming of The Ride became a personal journey are explored in my conversation with the director where she had the World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Gillard's documentary takes us on the annual Chief Big Foot Memorial Ride that retraces part of their ancestors' history as we follow young Lakota being reminded along the way of their responsibility to the community and so much more.

After the defeat of General Custer at Little Bighorn and the surrender and execution of Chief Sitting Bull, the Lakota Sioux fled through South Dakota, joined by Chief Big Foot's people and chased by the US Cavalry. In December 1890, at Wounded Knee, the massacre of hundreds of unarmed Lakota took place.

Elder AJ Agard teaches young Lakota
Elder AJ Agard teaches young Lakota

Anne-Katrin Titze: You begin your film with a clip from the 1894 Ghost Dance produced by Thomas Edison, going way back to the beginning of cinema. Then you go completely into the present. It's a nice way of showing the different generations - what the film is really about.

Stéphanie Gillard: I loved this archival [footage]. Originally, I didn't want to put any archive in the film. Then in previews, people were like, maybe we should know more about Wounded Knee. So I was looking for Ghost Dance archives and I could only find still pictures. Then I found this one which I think is not really a Ghost Dance but I loved it because you would see people dancing. In the end of the film there are people dancing, so I wanted to make it like a circle.

AKT: All the information we get at the beginning and then it's not about the information anymore.

Jesse James White with staff
Jesse James White with staff

SG: My idea originally was that all history was told by the people who were doing the ride. Even for the people in the movie it was a big surprise. I thought, it's always white people who are explaining what has happened to them. And I was like, no, it's going to be them explaining what happened to their ancestors. I like the sequence with the kids explaining the paintings. To me it was really important. Sometimes they say wrong stuff, but it's okay. I don't care. It's their own words and how they look at it.

AKT: I noticed a woman in a pink hoodie who says "I'm a star".

SG: Marisa.

AKT: She shows up throughout the film. We trace her. First she makes her comment and walks away because she doesn't want to be interviewed. Then we see her on a horse with a little child.

Marvin Noisy Hawk wrangling a horse
Marvin Noisy Hawk wrangling a horse

SG: It's her niece or something like that.

AKT: And then we see her talking casually at the end.

SG: Yeah, she is always talking about horses. She is very shy. Originally, I had some female characters, not her. But because of the narration it was not fitting in there. I have always the critique of my films that there are too many people, too many characters, no focus on one character. But my story is about a group! So I chose five.

AKT: Did you actually do the ride on a horse yourself?

SG: Not the year I filmed. I've done it before and after.

AKT: How did you first encounter them?

Hiesen Different Horse, Jesse James White, Delaney Lester watching Little Big Man
Hiesen Different Horse, Jesse James White, Delaney Lester watching Little Big Man

SG: The first time I was there, I didn't know how to ride. I wanted to make a movie in this area and I was trying to work on Jim Harrison, the novelist, his books. So I read all his books and finally I ended up buying a book of photographs for which he wrote the preface. And the pictures were from the Ride of 1990. When I saw the pictures, it was exactly what I wanted to tell. History coming back to the present. The natives of today that I only find in books but I never see them in films.

AKT: It says at the start of your film that the seventh generation will complete the cycle, set things right and "mend the Lakota Sacred Hoop". Where are we at now?

SG: It's supposed to be the seventh generation. I filmed in 2011. Wounded Knee was 1890. So when I saw those pictures, I found some articles. [Eventually] there was a phone number and I called and a woman told me, okay, the ride is starting on the 15th. So I came with no camera and nothing. After one week they offered me to ride a horse. Well, they were trying every day.

Jayce Wallace Archambault, Jesse James White, Parish Michael Antelope, Cypress Cliff Nelson Hammons describe the story behind the paintings
Jayce Wallace Archambault, Jesse James White, Parish Michael Antelope, Cypress Cliff Nelson Hammons describe the story behind the paintings

After one week, Jimmy came and said: " Okay, Frenchie, I found you a horse. Go find yourself a saddle and bridle. You have no choice." That was 2009. I came back in 2010. This year I rode four or five days. I came back in the summertime for one month. I tried to make some short films with the kids. I came back with my crew and introduced them to the people and then we filmed it. The year after that, I rode it all the way.

AKT: The horses are beautiful. How much rider and horse depend on each other becomes very clear. There is a moment when the boys in the car are watching a scene from Little Big Man. We only get to hear it and the camera focuses on the faces of the boys commenting. They react to the horses first (not to Dustin Hoffman). Had they seen the movie before?

SG: No, it was the first time. It was a rest day and we were supposed to go to the gas station to get some gas. In our truck we had a DVD player with a screen. So the boys were watching DVDs. I was driving and the cameraman, Martin [de Chabaneix] was seated by me and [sound editor] Erwan [Kerzanet] was in the back. Just by the sound I could recognise it was the moment of Little Bighorn. And I was like, oh, oh, I want to have that! I want to see their reaction on that. I remember the movie since I was a kid. I've seen it so many times. It was interesting to see their reaction. I love the moment when Jayce says to Custer, "Yeah, I think you should go ahead because we are going to kill you anyway!" To them it's really strange. They are looking at it like it's a game. It's not really real but they are proud to see it.

"We were ahead of the riders and waiting for them."
"We were ahead of the riders and waiting for them."

AKT: I often loved the camera placement. Was your cameraman on horseback at all?

SG: There was one day where he [Martin de Chabaneix] went on a horse and the sound engineer [Erwan Kerzanet] too. It was so complicated, we just did it once. We were only three on the whole crew … What finally interested me in the story is that it's a Trail of Tears but they live it like a happy moment. They are happy to experience that together. The tougher it is the more it is fun. They can't wait to go on the ride every year.

AKT: Some of them say that they wait all year to go on the ride.

SG: For me it's the same. I can't imagine spending Christmas anywhere else now. Two years ago, I stayed at home in France for Christmas.

AKT: Next year, it'll be the ride again?

"I can't imagine spending Christmas anywhere else now."
"I can't imagine spending Christmas anywhere else now."

SG: Yes!

AKT: I loved the explanation given about the songs - "They didn't give us the time to listen to the next verse with the lyrics." So for centuries and in movies, you hear "heya" and that's it. In a later scene we hear the song of the "Green grass man." Had you heard this before?

SG: No. When I went there, it was because of the pictures I saw. But the very first time on the ride, what really moved me was the music and the sound. The first time I heard them screaming on the horse, it gave me the chills. It really moved me. I started to notice how the songs were structured, how they'd keep the Lakota structure but with English words.

AKT: The songs are catchy and haunting just watching the film once: "Oh my sweet darling baby girl, I will be your green grass man?" It's so different from the westerns we grew up with.

SG: They appropriate the thematic of the western but in a Lakota way. They are songs connected to their daily life and not always connected to the past.

The Ride across The Badlands of South Dakota
The Ride across The Badlands of South Dakota

AKT: Twice you show them shopping in these eerie small rural markets.

SG: They are gas stations because there is nothing else but gas stations.

AKT: It's the only time we see alcohol. Behind the cashier woman are bottles of alcohol and some types of medication and junk food.

SG: It's always outside the reservation, by the border. Small gas stations run by the white in the area. I must admit, I've never experienced racism as I've seen there. Nobody knows what they have to endure every day. It's completely crazy. We were at the side of the road with horses and you'd have a truck with rednecks saying really awful stuff. In France they would go to jail for that, for what they were saying. Here nothing happens.

The Ride had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival
The Ride had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival

AKT: You decided not to include any of this?

SG: It was not the year I filmed. You know, when Manaja, he is explaining that they don't like Indians over here, west of the Missouri River, it was just half an hour before that the crew - we were just parked at the entrance of a field to film the horses passing by on the road. We were ahead of the riders and waiting for them. Then arrive the ranchers, the framers of this field in a truck, saying "You are not allowed to stay here…" They are doing the ride for 25 years, they just pass by, originally, it's their land. They are not trying to get it back, just passing by. They are with kids…

AKT: Trying to teach the kids history.

SG: Yeah, it's cultural stuff. But those guys are going "it's my land!" Generally, the answer is "Yeah, but it was my land before." The whites who have those small gas stations, each time I would go there, they would ask "Ah, you are French, what are you doing here?" And I would say "I'm here for the Big Foot Ride" and that's it. You really feel that you make them uncomfortable.

AKT: Did you see Arnaud Desplechin's Jimmy P.?

SG: No, I didn't see it. I wanted to see it.

AKT: Misty Upham is great in it. Her life had a tragic ending.

SG: The first time I went on the reservation, I was pretty scared, honestly. All the movies today on the reservations, they always show the bad side - alcoholism, drugs, unemployment. I went to the Navajo reservation and it's not in the same state as the Lakota reservation. People don't smile at you when you arrive. When you get to know these people, they are so friendly.

AKT: It's more than a 300 mile classroom. I've learned things from this film that I never expected.

SG: Never in the film did I ask someone to go from this place to this place, never. I never give orders to my characters. It's us who have to follow them.

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