Saturday, January 14, 2023

On Sacred Ground: Movie Review

Subdued, but fair and impassioned.
On Sacred Ground is the true story of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests at the Standing Rock Reservation. It opens with a Texas Oil Company paying a Houston newspaper to do an article about how awesome they are, so the newspaper scours the freelance journalism networks to find the most easily bought-off reporter that they could hire to cover the protests in the most pro corporate oil way possible.   2023

Directed by: Josh Tickell, Rebecca Harrell Tickell

Screenplay by: William Mapother, Josh Tickell

Starring: William Mapother, Kerry Knuppe

Taking place during the 2016 election, Dan McKinney (William Mapother) is right-wing Republican, living in small-town Ohio, recently returned home from the Iraq war, complete with trauma and PTSD triggers, and has a pregnant wife (Amy Smart) who’s trying to get ready for the baby on her own since freelance journalism doesn’t pay a whole lot. He’s perfect they think – and he mostly is perfect for their purposes – he needs the money and he dutifully writes the article they pay him to write, interviewing only oil company workers who the need the job the pipeline provides and listening to all their bullshit about protestors attacking them with bows and arrows.

It's a very muted film. Entirely shot in dull colours, as if it’s always just about to rain in North Dakota. It’s also a slowly paced film and all big revelations or turning points are treated with zero fanfare. It often feels like there is nothing happening since the few significant moments evolve gradually within the story. But another way to view this is that it’s a stoic film. Filmmakers that know the true story can be just as effective as a larger-than-life story. I suspect everything shown was accurate and very little if anything was fictionalized for dramatic purposes (apart from his PTSD flashbacks).

There are a few key things touched on throughout the film. First, it was the Obama administration that approved this pipeline without consulting the Native leaders. And not all Republicans jumped on board the Trump crazy train. While there are a lot of politics within the film, it leaves the politics out for most characters because there isn’t just one line. The First Nations tribes are worrying about their livelihood not about politics.

The “villain” for the first half of the movie, the executive from the oil company who’s helping Dan get his story, isn’t nearly has villainous as most people would want to make him. He steers people away from making racial stereotypes, he keeps the argument for the pipeline centered entirely on the fact that America just isn’t ready to move entirely to environmentally-friendly resources, that oil is a necessary evil, and if you accept that, then he just has to pose the question where should the oil come from: shales in North Dakota or buy it from the middle east. He’s too reasonable and articulate to be the real villain, the real villain is the US government. And that’s a smart angle for a film like this.

Another key point was the role played by Iraq war veterans. All the pro-pipeline people make the assumption that they will all be on their side. But the trauma and PTSD that all the veterans came home with typically have another side-effect: empathy. Dan eventually starts seeing the pipeline from the point of view of the Standing Rock residents. Polluting their water and the government doesn’t care.

The war flashbacks that Dan suffers from are a little heavy-handed. They are more frequent than necessary to get the point across so they just end up slowing down the already inert movie.

On Sacred Ground ends with a crucial point: the fight isn’t over. There are still open cases to get the pipeline shut down, and the obvious environmental impacts can get it delayed but not necessarily stopped. This is a very subdued film but its target audience should appreciate the fair and impassioned approach.

Available to rent (iTunes, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon, etc.)

Something Similar But Different:

  Percy (2020) - The underdog true story of a farmer vs a giant corporation.

  The Stand at Paxton County (2020) - The true story of an over-reaching government law and the people fighting back.

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