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Native Sun News: Pine Ridge actors make a splash with new film

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

A scene from Songs My Brothers Taught Me. Still image from Sundance Institute

Lakota players score at Cannes Film Festival
Making it big in France with ‘Songs My Brothers Taught Me’
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health and Environmental Editor

RAPID CITY –– Young actors from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are coming home from the Cannes Film Festival presentation of their independent movie “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” ready to share a piece of the proverbial lights, camera and action with their peers.

“We are so excited to announce that we have teamed up with South Dakota Film Festival and Pharrell Williams’ i am OTHER to bring you the Pine Ridge Youth Documentary Competition!” their producer-director-screenwriter Chloé Zhao declared on May 21 at the prestigious annual event in France.

That was the same day South Dakota Film Festival organizers announced the contest for tribal members residing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, whose winning movies will be shown at the event set in Aberdeen from Sept. 30 through Oct. 4, 2015. The deadline for submissions is July 1.

In the meantime, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” which was filmed on location on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, is set for a South Dakota premiere and three other engagements in June.

Zhao and actors are planning to attend the statewide event on June 9 at 6 p.m. CDT at West Mall 7, 2101 W. 41st St. in Sioux Falls. The event is being organized with the help of Cinema Falls: A Destination for Film.

YouTube: Songs My Brothers Taught Me

The first of two screenings there is already sold-out. Tickets for the second screening are available for $10.

At least two other screenings are being scheduled admission-free on the reservation at Nunpa Theatre in Kyle.

“We will be back in the Heartlands,” members of the production said in written publicity materials. “Some of our cast and crew will be present at those screenings. We can't wait to meet you all!”

Zhao expects to be on hand for another two screenings at the One Nation Film Festival in Colorado Springs, at 7 and 9 p.m. on June 20. The festival, dedicated to Native American and global indigenous films, is sponsored by Colorado College Native American Student Union, The Hulbert Center for Southwest Studies, and Colorado College. Ticket information is available at

The film and speakers’ last stop of the month is scheduled for June 24, with screenings at 6 and 8 p.m. at the Free State Festival at Liberty Hall, 636 Massachusetts St., in Lawrence, Kansas, the home of Haskell Indian Nations University. Film showing sponsors are The University of Kansas Public Radio and Prairie Fire Entertainment.

The world premiere took place in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and was a critics' favorite. It went to Cannes as an official selection of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight during the 68th season of the event on the French Riviera.

To pull that off is quite an accomplishment, according to Scottish filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson, who recently spoke at the Black Hills Film Festival in Rapid City about his forthcoming independent feature “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” also filmed with local actors on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Producer / director / screenwriter Chloé Zhao, left, with actors John Reddy and Jashaun St. John. Photo from Facebook

“No Native film has ever both competed at Sundance and ended up in Cannes,” he said. He lauded Zhao for “drawing the best of Pine Ridge out and celebrating it.”

What’s more, the movie received a standing ovation in Cannes, netted a coveted write-up in the daily Liberation media watch magazine, and garnered added cachet with a display window picture by photographer Cécile Burdan in a Cannes outlet of the agnès b fashion boutique chain.

Zhao, who is originally from Beijing, credits members of the local community for her debut feature’s success. “We were completely indebted to our cast and friends on Pine Ridge, most of them were acting for the first time, and were born, raised and residing on the reservation,” she said.

“They trusted us completely, and welcomed us into their homes and their lives," she said. "The film would certainly not have been possible without their kindness and support.”

The movie is a tale of the bond between a brother and sister who find themselves on separate paths to rediscovering the meaning of home, according to the program notes. As the story unfolds, high school senior Johnny is fixing to leave the Pine Ridge Reservation when the unexpected death of his rodeo-cowboy father complicates things. He rethinks his plans while his 13-year-old sister Jashaun seeks answers from her older half-brothers.

Zhao and New York City actress, photographer and casting director Eléonore Hendricks visited schools on the reservation in search of talent. Zhao picked Lakota born and reservation bred John Reddy out of a high-school yearbook for the big brother lead in the story, but she couldn’t cast him until he showed up after skipping school for a week, he said.

Now a graduate of Pine Ridge High School, Reddy has discovered a passion for acting and hopes opportunities such as his can help other reservation youth.

“I liked that Chloé picked us,” Reddy said in an interview in Cannes. I make a lot of mistakes from time to time. It was good because she kept me out of trouble,” he told Getty Images/Editor Ming Yeung.

“There’s a lot of suicide and alcoholism on the rez and we want that to change,” he added.

Jashaun St. John with Travis Lone Hill, who also stars in the film. Photo from Facebook

Jashaun St. John, also Lakota born and reservation bred, who plays the little sister role, is an 8th- grader at Wolf Creek School and likewise looks forward to pursuing her newfound interest in acting.

She is a guard on the Wolf Creek Warriors Basketball team in the winter and competes in jingle dress and fancy shawl dancing during the summers. In 2014 she won a trip to the University of Wisconsin for an essay writing competition.

Another Pine Ridge Indian Reservation native, Travis Lone Hill acts in the film as well as contributing clothing and artwork that he created. A former Gates scholar, he is a father, visual artist, tattoo artist, and prolific poet.

Cat Clifford, also born and raised on the Pine Ridge Reservation, is an Indian cowboy. His songs, reflective of his life on the rodeo circuit, are featured originals in the movie. He is a tattoo artist and makes leather products with his company Cat Clifford Custom Leather.

Irene Bedard stars as Lisa in the film. Image from Songs My Brothers Taught Me

Zhao pitted the novices with experienced Native America actors Irene Bedard and Taysha Fuller, as well as Hendricks.

“I love working with actors and young actors together,” she said in Cannes. “I think it’s a very special thing to mix that,” she told Getty Images. She said she hopes to do more of it in the future.

Hendricks, who plays the role of Angie, is noted for performances in the Safdie Brothers films “Pleasure of Being Robbed,” “Daddy Longlegs,” “The Black Balloon,” and “Heaven Knows What”. She can be seen in “Nancy, Please” by Andrew Semans, Dustin Guy Defa’s “Bad Fever” alongside Kentucker Audley, and “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Boulevard” by Dito Montiel.

Bedard was born in Anchorage, Alaska. She is of Inupiat, Inuit and Métis ancestry. Her first role was as Mary Crow Dog in the television production “Lakota Woman: Siege at Wounded Knee.” She starred in Chris Eyre’s “Smoke Signals” and TV movie “Crazy Horse.” She worked on Pine Ridge for her role in “Thunderheart.” She was the voice of the heroine in the Disney animated film Pocahontas, as well as the physical model for the character. She appeared as Pocahontas’ mother in the 2005 film “The New World” by Terrence Malick.

Taysha Fuller, who plays the role of Aurelia, grew up in Ohsweken, Ontario, Canada, on the Six Nations Reservation. She is best known for her work on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” as Jessica Martello, and she can be seen in “Prayer for a Good Day” directed by Zoe Hopkins. In addition to acting, Fuller is a contemporary and native fancy dancer.

“Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is a contemplation of the time I spent on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during the four years of making this film,” Zhao explains in publicity material.

Recalling how she left home when she was 14 and has “been moving from place to place ever since,” Zhao said, “There isn’t one particular place in the world from which I cannot just uproot myself and leave behind. ‘Home’, to me, feels like only a concept, and I find myself often exploring its meaning in my films and writing.”

In the filmmaking process, she “became increasingly intrigued and almost envious of the deep connection” that Pine Ridge Indian Reservation residents “have to their homes, families, communities and their land.” Contrasting her background to “this bone-deep attachment,” led her not only to a plot of rediscovery but also to the opportunity to “rediscover who I am,” she said.

Zhao cautioned that the movie is not meant to give a general description of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, rather to explore issues through “a group of very complex characters.”

In her opinion: “There simply are not enough films made about this place and these people. As a result, the ones that are made often end up being used to generalize the community – something our mainstream media has done in its appropriation of Native Americans for a long time. This needs to change.”

Resident tribal members age 30 or less who want to be part of that change can enter the Pine Ridge Youth Documentary Contest, which aims to “engage and encourage Lakota youth living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to share their stories through documentary filmmaking.” No entry fee is required.

Zhao and Bedard are among jurors. First prize is $1,000, second $500, and third $250. Each winner also will receive a GoPro camera.

(Contact Talli Nauman at

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