Sundance 2018 – Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock

Before the screening, director Cody Lucich informed the audience that this film was a work in progress, that we would be watching a rough cut of the film. It was clear pretty quickly that this was definitely a work in progress, rough like sandpaper. I really don’t feel good about not liking this film. I really don’t, I feel terrible. I know that this makes me some level of an asshole. When a film is about an event as urgent and important as this, and is told by those who experienced it firsthand, you want it to be good. But Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock is just not. Lucich follows the standoff between protestors against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline – on sacred Native American ground and underneath the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers – and the law enforcement that took place from early 2016 to early 2017. It’s clear Lucich has a love for these people that bravely stood against corruption and wants to share their accounts, but it doesn’t result in a particularly engaging film. Akicita is about an incredibly important and pressing issue/event, but is not a well made film. Having your heart in the right place doesn’t automatically equal a good film unfortunately.

To start off, it’s a bad sign if you’re documentary tells the audience at the beginning that “everything you’re about to see is real”, it’s a bit redundant and raises the question – do you think the audience is stupid enough to think otherwise? It’s like warning people at a heavy metal concert that they may experience hearing loss. We know what this is, you don’t have to explicitly tell us – just show us.

Lucich’s direction is a terrible fit for the material, opting for sensationalism of events that don’t need sensationalizing to be sobering which ends up diluting the effect that watching these terrible things should have. It’s almost like he thinks he’s shooting a music video, nearly every third shot is in slow motion and cut with the others in quick edits, he even soundtracks portions of the film to some terrible pseudo-feel-good techno music. It’s like if Zack Snyder made a documentary. There’s so many sequences where Lucich sensationalizes what we’re seeing rather than observing, like he’s going “Check this sick shit out” and flexing with slow motion, music video sequences. The editing and the cinematography, the overall tone of how he constructs this film, just aren’t the appropriate aesthetic to communicate the urgency and outright terror of the situation.

There are very many interesting thoughts and questions the film touches on but does not explore. Are there inherent limits to activism? What is the intersection of celebrity and protest like? How are movements diluted by becoming trendy? Was the Standing Rock movement defeated from the leadership within? There’s just so many intriguing threads for this film to follow yet it follows none, it’s like it can’t make up its mind about what it wants to be. There were so many parts I wanted to know more about but didn’t get to.

The film is just so scattered in its construction, it’s trying to cover everything and ultimately ends up falling short of communicating and creating meaning for much of what happened. It can never stop to expand on a particular point and do anything interesting with it, the film operates under the assumption that just glossing over everything is enough. It’s strange to have a 2 hour documentary filled with footage from the ground level of the event and feel as if you learned so little about the actual event. It’s just clear there can’t be just one documentary to serve as the definitive telling of the story. You get the feeling it deserves an 8-10 episode docuseries, there’s just way too much material to try to convey in just 2 hours. With all this said though, I do look forward to seeing the final cut to see what changes they make and if the film settles into some sort of focus. This could be a good film, it’s just far from it in its current form.

It seems more and more we get quicker and quicker production and release of documentaries about current events. If something happens, so does a documentary about it. There was another documentary at Sundance this year (I didn’t see it) called Our New President about Russian propaganda and fake news. The whole Trump/Russia saga isn’t even over and we already have a documentary about it. Standing Rock is barely a year removed from the protest and is still a lively movement, and we already have a documentary about it.

There just seems to be this need to understand current events through art and documentation that is really fascinating to me. We seem to need a representation of what’s happening to us in order for us to begin to understand it. I’m not sure what it says about us, I don’t know if it’s good or bad or some mixture of both. Maybe we’ll find that out in these next few years. One thing is clear though – the revolution may not be televised, but it will get its own documentary quickly.

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