MacArthur genius set sights on ‘Wounded Knee’
Here’s how documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson describes his creative process. "We write a detailed script, and then we throw it out."
Nelson and longtime collaborator and screenwriter Marcia Smith spent two years compiling footage, writing, editing and taping interviews for "Wounded Knee," a film that chronicles the 71-day standoff between American Indian Movement activists and federal troops near the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre almost 100 years earlier.
The confrontation in the winter of 1973 brought national attention to the Lakota tribe, attracted nationwide news coverage, and captured some of the American West’s most iconic images. The cowboys-and-Indians drama played out against vast open spaces as the Lakota brandished rifles and federal tanks encircled and crept in on the band. "The occupiers of Wounded Knee were so good at exploiting stereotypes," mused Nelson. "They wore braids with ribbons in their hair. It was a huge confrontation, and it was in the middle of nowhere. Once news crews were assigned to the story, they had to stick around."
Nelson pared down more than 100 hours of footage to make the 74-minute documentary, which spans the 80 years after Geronimo died through the Wounded Knee standoff in the early 1970s. The film, the fifth in a series to air on PBS May 11, was a departure for the filmmaker, whose previous work has focused on the black experience in the United States.
Nelson has gained notoriety for his work at the festival with a slew of films. "A Place of Our Own" screened at the festival in 2004 and "The Murder of Emmett Till," won a Special Jury Prize from Sundance in 2003, along with a Peabody Award and a Primetime Emmy. "Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind," screened at Sundance in 2001.
"In the past, we’ve proposed projects," Nelson explained. "This was the first time someone approached us and asked if we wanted to work on something."
Even though Nelson didn’t know much about the documentary’s topic, he jumped at the chance to work on such an ambitious project. "The learning curve was different," he said. "I don’t know if it was any steeper, just different."
Nelson noted that although the experiences of some African-Americans and Native Americans bear similarities, they remain distinct. "You can’t get into who has been through the most misery," he said. "It’s a very different history, so we ended up in very different places."
Different, too, is the increased commercial viability of documentaries in the mainstream U.S. market. "They’re being recognized," Nelson said. "People are going to see them. It’s a lot sexier thing than it used to be."
The trend for minority filmmakers, though, doesn’t necessarily match the upward tick of documentaries in general.
"Many of the programs that were once available to people of color just aren’t there anymore," Nelson said, and added, "Minorities often don’t have friends in high places."
Nelson pointed to his own upbringing in New York City’s public schools, open college enrollment and grants that helped him become one of the most decorated documentary filmmakers of his generation.
The quandary is largely financial. Either filmmakers finance their own projects or forge connections in film school, both of which are expensive propositions. Nelson, who is the executive producer of his own production company, plans to start a producers’ lab for filmmakers of color.
Just the facts:
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Jennifer McDonald, a self-described lifelong Republican, was selected as the Summit County Republican Party chair last week.