The story of a Lakota Native American man torn between his ancestral home and a career in the big city inspired two U.S. filmmakers to invest 13 years into “Without Arrows.” Their doc, which is slated to premiere onscreen in December or early next year, was one of eight U.S.-made projects pitched at the Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival this week as part of the New Visions Forum development program.
Alongside other upcoming creative docs on subjects ranging from a sci-fi take on the deadly effects of heat in Phoenix, Arizona (Lynne Siefert’s “Valley of the Night”) to Riley Hooper’s “Vestibule,” a look at the societal challenges faced by women with vulvar disorders, “Without Arrows” impressed Ji.hlava industry attendees with its compelling story.
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Co-director Elizabeth Day, herself a member of the Ojibwe nation from Minnesota, joined forces with co-director Jonathan Olshefski, she says, after she saw some of the dramatic footage he had been filming on the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe reservation in South Dakota.
“Jon’s cinematography was just exciting to work with,” she says, describing dramatic images of the community constructing a massive ceremonial tent, which then blows down in a tremendous storm.
Day also noted that her own parents immediately identified with the Lakota subjects of “Without Arrows,” which helped her to realize the importance of getting native American representation onto film screens and into homes.
Olshefski agrees, saying he realized after his first few years of filming on his own with a DSLR that he needed a native partner on the project to ensure the story was told respectfully and inclusively.
As his relationships grew with the native community and he sensed more and more responsibility, Olshefski says, he came to a conclusion: “Okay, we’ve got to make this movie and I don’t want to do it alone. I wanted to have a native indigenous collaborator. I have things I just don’t understand as a white guy, especially a white guy living in Philadelphia.”
He found Day through people “in the public television world,” and soon won her over with the story and the material.
The doc’s protagonist, Delwin Fiddler Jr., is caught in a dilemma common to many Native Americans, the filmmakers say: Life on the reservation is central to his identity and to preserving ancestral culture – but with so many traditional homelands locked in states of economic and social crisis, he found the path to career and success far away from home.
In this case, moving to the streets of Philadelphia led Fiddler to a breakthrough, founding a dance company performing native rituals that eventually toured the globe. Olshefski, who met Fiddler in Philadelphia more than a decade ago, says a phone call from his new friend kicked off what was to become the long journey toward finishing “Without Arrows.”
“I get this phone call from this guy who’s like ‘Jon – when are we going to make our movie?’”
Olshefski, an experienced filmmaker with a previous social justice doc screened at Sundance (“Quest”), didn’t at first see the possibility of a feature-length film but agreed to start on a short looking at Fiddler’s journey. Then when Fiddler suddenly announced he was giving up his dancing career to move back to the reservation and started a family there, it was clear “this story’s way deeper than I thought,” the director says.
“Without Arrows” has won Ford Foundation and ITVS backing in the U.S. and PBS has secured American broadcast rights but Olshefski says theatrical rights and worldwide distribution is the next goal.
Day says one of her biggest challenges on the project was finding the structure and throughline – especially after looking over the hundreds of hours Oshefski had filmed. “We cut this film possibly a hundred different ways, different angles,” she says. “There are so many different story lines that we could have gone with.”
But the team found the story coming together once they decided to cut out “one of our favorite characters,” who was Fiddler’s niece, Day says, “because it just veered too far away from our main protagonist’s story line. And also because she was a child it felt a little bit like she’s too vulnerable at this moment.”
The project is also geared toward helping Native Americans build careers and opportunities, Day says, with an eye toward constructing the capacity to tell future stories in the media.
A powerful element that remained in the story is Fiddler’s relationship with his daughter, whom he had been separated from early in her life. Fiddler’s mother, who died in August, was also filmed, asking her son to help preserve native culture so that it can be passed on to the next generation. His efforts to coach youngsters on the reservation in traditional dance make for unique and moving scenes.
Much of the film focuses on Fiddler’s relationships with his mother and father, Day says, “and how it is to take on his mission. How does Delwin take that and then pass it on to his daughter and give his daughter that mission to carry on?”
“You can be among your people and on the land but you don’t have the economic opportunities,” Olshefski says. “So then people make a decision to go back, so then many people go back and forth.”
“Another thing I was cognitive of was representation of communities, of native representation,” Day says. “And it’s because often it’s really easy to go for the drama, and those things are often a negative, leading to a stereotype. So we were really mindful to not sanitize the film but also really to show the positive aspect of the community, the laughter, the joy, the strength, the resilience. I think that’s where a lot of power comes from – in the laughter, in the resilience.”
“That’s how we’ve survived as a nation and as a culture – through laughter,” Days says. “I think people think of natives as being serious people and it’s quite the opposite. Everyone is a comedian and there’s so much healing through laughter. And we hope that that comes through.”
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