Indie film starring legendary Native American hero comes to Hurricane

A scene from "Neither Wolf Nor Dog," 2016 | Photo courtesy of Roaring Fire Films, St. George News

HURRICANE — An independent film that was crowd-funded and shot in 18 days by a tiny crew with a 95-year-old protagonist is outperforming Hollywood blockbusters in select theaters throughout the country. And now the movie, “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” is coming to Southern Utah for a limited showing at Coral Cliffs Cinema 8 in Hurricane starting this Friday.

Adapted from the novel “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” by Kent Nerburn, the movie’s plot follows a white author who gets pulled into the heart of contemporary Native American life in the sparse lands of the Dakotas by a Lakota elder and his sidekick.

Steven Lewis Simpson directs Dave Bald Eagle on the set of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” as author Kent Nerburn looks on, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Roaring Fire Films, St. George News

The film was directed by Scottish director Steven Lewis Simpson and stars the legendary Dave Bald Eagle, a Native American actor with a storied life that included advocacy for all Native peoples and service in World War II, where he was recognized for his heroism in the invasion of Normandy. He was 95 years old when the movie was filmed.

“Dave Bald Eagle was quite simply as unforgettable a person as you could meet,” Simpson told St. George News. “He had a glow about him like no other. He was a lot of fun and there was a lot of laughter on set working with him.”

Bald Eagle, who died in 2016, played the part of Dan, a rough-edged and earthy Lakota elder who has reflected long and hard on the traditions, beliefs and plight of Native peoples. Coming from a lineage that included people who died in the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890, Simpson said Bald Eagle was more than just a mere actor in the film.

“The last scene we filmed with him was the climax at Wounded Knee,” Simpson said. “I threw away the novel and script at that point as it seemed contrived, compared to where we had gotten to in the shoot. So I let Dave improvise the whole sequence. Dave’s own family had a closer link to the massacre of 1890 than even the character he was playing.

“At the end of the scene, he turned to Christopher Sweeney, who was playing opposite, and said ‘I’ve been holding that in for 95-years.’”

Article continues below film trailer.

While Bald Eagle’s performance was the film’s keystone, Simpson said the rest of the cast worked together in an incredibly natural way.

“I was extremely lucky with casting the film, particularly because some of the most established Native actors out there were friends of mine and were very supportive of the novel and the movie,” Simpson said.

The film also stars Christopher Sweeney playing the part of Kent Nerburn, the white author who frames the movie’s story and the namesake of the author of the novel on which the film is based. Nerburn worked with the Ojibwe people on the reservations of northern Minnesota.

A scene from “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” 2016 | Photo courtesy of Roaring Fire Films, St. George News

“The funny thing is that being a European gave me the important perspective on the white character of Nerburn,” Simpson, who is from Scotland, said. “Because even though we have both had a great deal of time and experience within Indian country, our experiences are incredibly different. As a European I am not held down by the chains of history in the same way that the real Kent Nerburn is.

“On Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where we filmed, I have been more welcome in the 19 years I’ve been been going there than anywhere else in the world, and it truly feels like a second home to me. So the tension and resistance that a lot of white Americans feel when they are there is opposite to what I have experienced.”

The film grapples with the tension that Simpson describes, following Nerburn through sometimes heated, emotional interactions with the films’ otherwise all-Native cast but ultimately culminating in some profound realizations for the character.

Simpson said the story’s unconventional, emotionally driven storytelling is one of the reasons it has resonated so strongly with audiences, who have showered it with high praise, earning the movie a 95 percent positive rating from over 230 audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Simpson said:

Movies used to be good at making people laugh and cry and walking out of the theater feeling like they had gone through a deep journey and experience, but now films are generally just loud, showy and noisy, and I think this film is giving people a much richer experience in the theater so they are laughing and crying and feeling like they have gone on a truly remarkable journey with a remarkable man.

The movie begins playing at various times at Coral Cliffs Cinema 8 in Hurricane starting Friday, with showings continuing for at least one week.

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