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TIFF 2017: Director Susanna White on the ‘anti-western’ Woman Walks Ahead

Jessica Chastain and Canadian Plains Cree actor Michael Greyeyes star in the true story of Catherine Weldon, a 19th-century Brooklyn artist who travelled to the Dakota Territory and became the confidante of legendary Sioux chief Sitting Bull.

The intimate historical drama Woman Walks Ahead is set in the Dakota territories and depicts the connection between two disenfranchised people: Catherine Weldon, a little-known 19th-century portrait artist and Indigenous rights advocate, and Sioux chieftain Sitting Bull (Jessica Chastain and Michael Greyeyes, respectively) in the days leading up to his murder and the massacre at Wounded Knee. On the eve of the world premiere, The Globe and Mail sat down with the English director Susanna White to find out what it means to make an anti-western, taking a step forward in representation on screen and giving female and Indigenous voices centre stage.

Judging by your previous work like Parade's End adapted by Tom Stoppard, to Generation Kill, written by David Simon, you seem to choose writing-driven projects. What in screenwriter Steven Knight's handling of this story and characters that interested you?

I grew up on westerns, watching them Saturday afternoons with my dad in the suburbs of London in a small house with a small garden and a grey sky. And that landscape to me, that sense of space and possibilities was very exciting. Yet I didn't connect with the world "where men were men" and there were these very harsh moral choices. And what I loved about this script of Steve's was really the humanity of it. And I'm very interested in history. Parade's End is about the last days of something – the last days of Edwardian England, something completely fractured by the First World War, that way of life gone forever. And the portrait of Woman Walks Ahead is very much the end of a civilization. It was the last days of something extraordinary.

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Why do you think it took so long – 14 years – for this film to be made?

I think to make a movie like this, you needed a star. In the past, it was hard to finance a movie on a female star and I'm happy to say I think that's changing a bit. But it was also a question of finding our Sitting Bull and that's [Canadian actor and scholar] Michael Greyeyes. One of the great joys of making the film really, for me, was working with Michael, who hadn't done a big movie before.

You've called the movie an anti-western, what do you mean by that?

Here were two people that you'd never normally see in a western or if you did they'd be peripheral.

I grew up on these westerns where there was a lot of gunfighting and marginalized characters. And I love the look of those films but it's not a conventional western in any sense in that this is much more gentle than that. The sensibility is different – it has a spiritual quality, an environmental message.

There is something that feels primordial about the way it's shot.

The other big thing I wanted to do with the film is have the sense of place, of the land, how we all pass through it, it was there before we were born, it will be there after we die – working with cinematographer Mike Eley and getting those skies and the sense of natural light. None of us can truly own it. At one point, Sitting Bull says, "You want to buy the land. Do you want to buy the sky as well?"

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What sort of peripheral reading and research did you do, being conscious of cinema's history of Indigenous representation?

The main research I did was trying to spend time in that community, and involving the community in the film. We worked with Lakota language consultant Ben Black Bear. I was invited to a sun dance ceremony with [consultant] Yvonne Russo, was taken to the sacred place where Sitting Bull danced it himself, where he was buried and spoke with a lot of people, including a very, very small group of elders who still speak Lakota. And I read Eileen Pollack's biography [Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon]. And actually Pollack discovered new information virtually as we were making the film and new stuff emerged.

When you visited the Standing Rock tribal council to ask for their support, what did you say to them?

How I felt this was a version of history which was so important, and which we didn't hear. A humanization of war, and about this extraordinary culture. When Catherine arrives, it's the complete end of a way of life. People were educated to have the Indian taken out of them. They weren't allowed to have their spiritual practices. Their art was burnt. It was so barbaric what happened to them as well as the physical things, the eradication of a whole culture. It's a genocide. What I wanted to show was that Sitting Bull was a warrior, yes, but a human being with a sense of humour who was also very spiritual. Those quotes in the film are things he actually said.

In the movie, there's also a line about how history can be circular. This time last fall when you were in production, more that a century after the events depicted in the movie, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests were gaining momentum. How did those real-world events inform the shoot?

It affected everybody there. We were doing collections on the set to send to Standing Rock, we were Instagramming messages from the set, because we had a lot of native American people working on the film. What we were doing felt so timely, although this film had been written a long time ago [14 years], it felt like it had found its moment.

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Besides directing several scenes in Lakota, an endangered language, what sensitivity was required to approach the set piece, the Ghost Dance?

There was a lot of discussion about whether it was right for us even to stage it at all. It's such a sacred dance to the Lakota people, a dance of desperation in this messianic cult where they had nothing left to believe in other than thinking there might be this vision of their ancestors, and that the white people would be wiped out and the buffalo would come back. Rulan Tangen (who plays Susan) is a choreographer, as is Michael [who is Plains Cree from Muskeg Lake Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan]. It felt okay to do it because she is involved in spiritual dance herself and brought in a lot of people.

Why did you choose to show archival photographs of the massacre as a coda?

Steve had written, "Then we show Wounded Knee." I knew there was no way I could do justice to that on the budget we had. I found this book, Eyewitness at Wounded Knee, and as I looked at it realized it was what we needed to transition into. To remind people that in the film we may have a conflation of real events but that the central story, of the oppression of these people, is true. They are powerful because they're real and there was a rightness to going back to that at the end of the movie.

What do you hope for in conversations about the film?

We haven't screened it anywhere, we haven't had the financing to test it. We don't even have distribution yet. So it will be interesting to see how it lands. I hope it will make people reflect about the world they live in and about a sense of history.

Woman Walks Ahead plays TIFF on Sept. 11, 2:15 p.m., Scotiabank and Sept. 15, 1:30 p.m., Winter Garden.

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