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BSS2016: Heather Rae

The BSS webpage and programme notes for Heather Rae list her many accomplishments as a producer, including prizes and awards garnered by her films, and her leadership work with, for example, the Sundance Institute. But no mention is made on either page of her strong commitment to political activism, particularly on behalf of the indigenous people of North America. This absence, combined with a physical presence (forgive the stereotypical perceptions) that seems to reflect her European (Irish) ancestry more than her Cherokee heritage, combined to create a sense of surprise, even shock, in much of the audience when she announced, “I’m here to talk about White Supremacy and Love – yes, I know that’s a weird combination!”

She spoke for the hour with no notes. But with very precise, focussed, expressive gestures to match her words.

Rae wasn’t in New Zealand to tell us how to win a Producer of the Year award, or a Grand Jury festival prizes or some such. Her mission was to alert us to what needs to change in all our societies, illustrated chiefly by what’s happening in North America, particularly at a place called Standing Rock in North Dakota.

She has journeyed there in order to document on film protests against exploitation of the few acres of land allocated 130 years ago as “reservations” for the local indigenous people, the Sioux. That land now turns out to be the repository of 80% of the state’s coveted natural resources, particularly oil.

But for Heather Rae, what’s happening in Standing Rock illustrates something that goes much deeper than simply protests against the world’s exploitation of indigenous people and their resources; she sees events there reflecting a deep cultural revival.

“Now is the time for a conversation about truth and reconciliation. But in North America, it’s not happening.

“North Dakota is a perfect example. Oil excavation has devastated the Sioux’s land base in North Dakota. The major oil transit company paid out to get around the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). They have polluted the waterways. They put their pipes through hundreds and hundreds of burial grounds – a violation of federal law.”

Thousands of people have joined the locals in solidarity with their protest – but there has been nothing about these events on national television.

”What’s going on? It’s not Democracy; it’s not the Mythology.”

Through her talk, she blended personal stories with her societal analysis. “Personally, I’m growing and changing all the time… Something changed on a molecular level for me when I became a grandmother. And as storytellers in particular, there is an inherent and powerful responsibility to connect with those we are speaking and listening to who have come before us – that’s part of the context of why I am here today.”

At one point, her 92-year-old grandmother asked Rae a question: Why is there no representation of indigenous people on nationwide television? Rae felt she had a responsibility to explore that question.

“All my stories on film up to that point were white stories (veteran soldiers, etc) – stories I was allowed to tell by white society.”

Through her film-making, she’s now aiming at a better understanding of how we got to where we are. “British imperialism, Spanish imperialism, finding its way into the Americas, then the rest of the world… Genocide, slavery, industrial revolution, multinational corporate exploitation, and now climate change…”

“I have British ancestry on one side. Why was Britain so intent on spreading itself around the world? What were the British looking for over that 400 year cycle of, essentially, consuming this land? An effort to find a new place to be, new opportunities? It was also an effort to make a super-race, and thereby a super-nation… The result was a dominance that permeates every aspect of western society – government, policy, literature, history, the entertainment business…”

“My father’s family is Irish… What Europe did to the rest of the world, it first did to itself. Destroying their indigenous cultures. Literal pain is felt by the colonised.”

”The entertainment industry – especially the English language section of it – creates 80% of the world’s media content. It creates content that goes around the world, but it doesn’t represent the world! Whatever they do – it’s not real!”

In the world, Rae told us, there are 4 to 4.5 billion Asian people, and about 1.1 billion African people; then there are 1.3 billion indigenous. There are only 600 million Europeans! There are 5.8 million people who are native American – and only 40 million Jewish people.

“The world is actually quite different from what we think it looks like!”

In Latin America, 85% of the population is native, and 15% immigrant – but in all those countries the 15% controls the government. The indigenous people are the majority – but that’s not the perception.

”So it’s about consciousness. How do we bring about such a discussion with integrity about who we are as a people?”

“It’s a little bit scary. Things are starting to unhinge in the world.”

Her mother’s stories led to her conclusion that Love is the answer.

One of those (true) stories: the Cherokee had a significant negotiation planned with the early settlers. But the Cherokee went home early from the meeting. When asked why, they said, “We waited for two days, but only half of them showed up.”

By that they meant there were no women in the settlers’ group. It was inconceivable, beyond their imagining, that one could have such an important group conference with half of the community not involved.

“And by the way – the planet is half women!”

It took 13 years for Rae to make her documentary about the legendary (in the USA at least) indigenous poet/activist John Trudell. She showed a powerfully effective clip of his 1979 speech “We Are Power”.

Her conclusion: one thing we as filmmakers can do is effect a change in consciousness. John Trudell: “We can’t make a difference through the political system, but we can make a difference through art.”

We need to recognise that our media are the modern versions of an ancient form. A very important responsibility of storytellers is the conversation with our ancestors, finding ways in which they speak to us, and through us. “Time is not linear, it’s a bend.”

We are contributing to the future with our stories. “There is power in stories, power in words.”

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3 Responses

  1. Alister Barry

    Pity we don’t have a documentary fund like so many other countries, and in the case of Australia, so many states within countries.


  2. Tony Forster

    Couldn’t agree more, Alister – thank you! Thanks too, Graham, for the Guardian reference – well worth the look.