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Riley Keough’s 'War Pony' Tells an Uncensored Native American Story

Courtesy of Momentum Pictures

Riley Keough’s directorial debut probably isn’t what audiences expected from the Daisy Jones & The Six star. Making its U.S. premiere on July 28, War Pony tells an uncensored Native American story from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The award-winning film is the result of a years-long friendship she and fellow director Gina Gammell nurtured with cowriters Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, both members of the Oglala Lakota tribe who grew up on the rez.

While technically not a documentary, War Pony is as close as it gets, having been filmed at Pine Ridge featuring a cast of mostly local Indigenous first-time actors. It doesn’t shy away from showing the bleak daily life in a place that consistently ranks among the poorest areas in the United States. And yet, there’s humor, joy, and beauty intermixed with the pain, drama, and hardship frequently presented on screen. Echoing this juxtaposition, scenes vacillate between dark, gritty interior moments and sweeping scene setters depicting the vast landscape of the 2.8 million–acre reservation. Both will take your breath away, but for very different reasons.

“Most white directors come through Pine Ridge and just want to show the poverty porn,” says Sioux Bob, who moved off the rez in his early twenties but returned for filming. “But this is a true portrayal that was trusted to be told by a Native. When you allow people to tell their own story, this is what happens.”

Courtesy of Momentum Pictures
Wasose Garcia and Jojo Bapteise Whiting on the set of War Pony

“The film became about how we could consciously and ethically collaborate within this community,” Keough told the Irish Times (she was unable to speak with W due to the on-going SAG-AFTRA strike). “It wasn’t an easy thing to do. In my opinion, if you want to be a filmmaker [and] go into a community, you can’t just take what you want and leave; you have to put a lot of work in. And that was something that we were going to do because these were our friends. They felt like our families.”

From the opening scene, we’re immediately thrust into the dual worlds of 23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) and 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a couple of Oglala Lakota boys trying to make it on the rez. The former is the father of two young kids with two different women who’s hellbent on hustling his way to a better life; the latter is a punkish schoolkid whose antics lead to his meth addict dad (played by Sioux Bob) kicking him out of the house.

For Sioux Bob, War Pony very much reflects his upbringing. “I come from a very dysfunctional family, and my dad died of alcoholism,” he says. “That’s a part of me, so why hide it? But making it out of Pine Ridge was something I always wanted to do. I love where I’m from because of the people, but I don’t want to be a part of it because of how bad the drugs got, how much people’s habits picked up, and how it’s already trickling down to their kids.”

The intertwining stories at the heart of the film paint a brutally honest picture of the overwhelming obstacles and disparities Native peoples face. Across the United States, tribal communities are plagued by disproportionately high rates of poverty, chronic disease, substance abuse, and suicide—the aftermath of centuries of oppression, disenfranchisement, and erasure. Witnessing this rarely revealed reality is an uncomfortable but necessary experience, particularly for Americans whose eyes have been strategically shielded from seeing such truths for ages.

Spending time on Pine Ridge was certainly eye-opening for Keough and Gammell. “I didn’t know Pine Ridge existed,” admits screenwriter and producer Gammell, who in addition to co-founding production company Felix Culpa in 2017 with Keough, is also her half sister. “It made me realize there are Third World problems in the middle of this really advanced country and that this country in the most obvious way does not look after its people. That was really stark to both Riley and me.”

These marked inequities are highlighted in the film with the introduction of Tim (Sprague Hollander), a wealthy white farmer with a penchant for having sex with young Native women. After a chance meeting, Bill goes to work for him and discovers firsthand how the other half lives—not far from his home on Pine Ridge and yet a world away.

Undeniably in your face, War Pony manages to avoid coming across as didactic. That’s a delicate balance Keough and Gammell endeavored to strike, though they admit their approach is inherently imperfect. At times, mainstream audiences could benefit from further explanation into key scenes and symbols woven throughout, like the recurring presence of bison, a sacred animal representing life, abundance, and survival. (It should be noted that the purposeful decimation of bison in the 1800s had a devastating effect on Native communities, which can still be felt today.)

So just how did this unexpected directorial debut from Keough and Gammell—which nabbed the Caméra d’Or award for best first feature at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival—happen? It all started in 2015, when Keough was in South Dakota filming Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, which also featured Reddy and Sioux Bob as extras. She struck up a genuine friendship with the men, and soon, both Keough and Gammell were regularly spending time with them in Pine Ridge, experimenting on creative collaborations like music videos and other short-form content. Eventually, they started working on a screenplay together about rez life and made a pact to figure out how to get the film made.

Which brings up another question: Can two white directors do justice to a Native story like this—albeit working in close collaboration with Indigenous co-creators and producers? After all, the groundbreaking scripted TV series Reservation Dogs has set a new bar for depicting Native stories authentically, featuring an all-Indigenous team of writers, directors, and regular actors. Keough and Gammell believe the answer is yes.

“My hope is that there’s a future where we can collaborate with care and love to help tell each other’s stories and pass the microphone in an effective way,” says Gammell. “For Riley and me, so much of the process was about taking ourselves out of the film and truly serving as vessels for Frank and Bill’s stories.” She’s quick to add that their personal experiences are not meant to represent that of all Indigenous peoples since Native culture is not a monolith (indeed, there are 574 federally recognized tribes in the United States alone).

Gammell is not naïve to the likely criticism she and Keough will face about the inherent white gaze they bring to War Pony, but telling this important story is worth the inevitable backlash. In reality, the film probably wouldn’t have been made without Keough’s involvement, and the duo fought hard to secure financial backing. On the flip side, they wouldn’t have had buy-in from the Pine Ridge community without Reddy and Sioux Bob.

Dominique Charriau/WireImage/Getty Images
Keough, Gammell and the War Pony cast at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival

It’s not unlike Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which stars Native actress Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet/Nimíipuu) opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a retelling of the mysterious 1920s murders of the Osage people over their oil-rich land. The famed filmmaker has been praised for tapping cultural consultants from the Osage Nation to help him accurately depict this atrocity. Perhaps these kinds of partnerships offer a preview of what’s to come in proper representation in pop culture—as opposed to the often exploitative, extractive portrayals of the past.

For the foursome who spent eight years bringing War Pony to life, the movie’s mere existence is an accomplishment. It’s one they share with the Pine Ridge community that was integral to making it happen, which is why Keough and Gammell flew 22 cast and crew members to Cannes for the world premiere last year. After all, it’s their story. But these aren’t just Native stories to be consumed solely by Native audiences.

“There’s so much trauma in Pine Ridge, but there’s also so much love,” says Sioux Bob. “This film showcases a world that most people haven’t seen but that they can experience, because it connects on a very human level.” And at its heart, that’s precisely the point of War Pony: to showcase the power of human connection.


Source: W Magazine

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