ManIFF 2015: Talking documentaries, festivals and American Native with director Steve Oritt

After its UK Première at ManIFF, we sat down with director Steve Oritt to talk about his film, American Native, his experience as a first time director on the festival circuit, his approach to documentary 'villains' and more besides.

Lehman Mann III, a member of the Ramapough tribe, who features in the film.

Film Intel: Can you talk a little bit about how you became involved with American Native? This is your first documentary, how did you get started with this film in particular?

Steve Oritt: My producing partner on the film, Corey Bobker and I were looking to do a feature length documentary and he grew up in New Jersey. He said to me: 'have you ever heard of the Jackson Whites?' and I said 'no, what are they?' I Googled them and all this shit came up, all the stuff that you see in the film; prostitutes, Hessian soldiers, and I was immediately interested. I started digging more and I found a link to the Ramapough Nation. I didn't know at this point that they actually identified as a Native American tribe.

From that we reached out and met with the tribe, who gave us access to, first of all, the chiefs and the political system and then carte blanche to anyone else we wanted to talk to, and that was the impetus for it.

There was also an article that came out in The New Yorker, right around the time that we started, called Strangers On The Mountain. The article recounted all of the stories and legends that I found from the 1800s about the boogie man and I thought 'really, The New Yorker is doing this?' To me there was a bigger, a better story there, about this process of Federal recognition, which I knew nothing about, like most Americans. To me, I thought that made it a cool subject matter to shine a light on.

FI: At one point in the film I thought it was going to go down a route of only talking about the Ramapough against the US federal system and I thought by the end you had successfully managed to not do that. The film actually does a lot of different things and talks about the Ramapough talking internally about who they want to be. Was it important to not make the film just about the Ramapough vs The US state? To bring in different things?

SO: Yes, we knew that it could not just be about the US political fight, because we wouldn't have got a real feel for the people as much. I felt like we needed to bolster that with some more human interest stuff, like the younger generation, the kids, the artist you see in the film, Autumn Wind Scott who does the speeches; to try to show a bit more of the fabric of the community. But it wasn't a conscious decision to say that we wanted to make a film that wasn't 'the tribe vs the US state'. We didn't want to be not anti-government - quite frankly, I'm turned on by things that are anti-government - I just didn't want to bore people. It would have been one note.

FI: We don't get a lot of content on the lives of American Indians today in the UK, but it feels as though the little that we do get is defined by conflict. Do you ever think that will change from what you've seen?

SO: Probably not, to be honest. Let me add the caveat that I'm not an expert at all in the subject matter. I'm a film-maker who happened to make a film about the subject matter and there are experts within the field in the film, who can speak to that better, but I think that the Native American experience has been one of continually being on the defence because they've been offended. They've been bred out, decimated, killed, so they're accustomed to having to be on the defence.

I can't speak too much on the Native American experience beyond the Ramapoughs, but I will say that I think, for them, they are so accustomed to being in an adversarial position, with their issues, that they're almost uncomfortable when there isn't an enemy. I hope that isn't too esoteric!

FI: What do you think white Americas reaction will be to your film, or what do you hope their reaction will be to it?

SO: I haven't really thought of it in those terms. I certainly haven't thought about who the audience is. Whilst we were making the film, I certainly wasn't concerned about who the audience was, outside of the Ramapoughs. As I said [in the post screening Q&A], because I knew I was going to be touching on some very sensitive subjects and issues there, I didn't want to fall into the same trap that some white men had done in the past in telling their story.

I guess, I hope 'the masses', not only white America, have been turned on by it, that people say the same as you have said, that people say they 'didn't know anything about this', because it's such an arcane piece of America and Native American life, I hope that it broadens the discussion a little more so that it's not just about what the usual Native American fayre happens to be.

A scene from the Ramapough Lenape annual powwow, which closes the film.

FI: There's a gentleman in your film called David Cohen and reference to possible mistakes he made when he was researching the tribe, which could still be impacting them now. As a documentary maker you're in a difficult position sometimes with regard to how you cast your characters and the judgement on Cohen is left quite open-ended, I imagine intentionally so. What do you think Cohen's intentions were and is he your film's villain, or was it important to make sure that he wasn't that?

SO: I think his intentions were actually in the right place and not malicious at all. I think though that he represents, quite frankly, a dying breed of older white men in America who are very myopic. He approached the subject matter without the sensitivity that it requires and when he was making these broad declarations of who these people were, I don't think he necessarily understood the weight of what would come with that.

When you're saying 'this is who you are' to people, that's kind of playing God. I don't think he was mal-intended, but maybe a bit naive or ignorant. We met with him, he was a very gracious man, he has good things to say about the Ramapoughs, but he feels that when he's called a bigot that it's out of line and he still stands behind his work. But yes, he is our bad guy, because he's the tribe's bad guy. I hope though that, after watching the film, that you sort of see him as not having malicious intentions.

The real bad guy, the Darth Vader character, is the chief in Oklahoma, who again, I have to say, was very gracious, very warm, very giving of his time to us. He didn't hide at all, he could have been extremely evasive, but he didn't pull his punches. Very few people nowadays can have a camera stuck in their face and tell you exactly how they see it and I give him that and for standing by his opinions.

FI: Whenever we go to festivals I always wonder what film-makers think of them. It's almost a necessity, they're obviously great exposure for you, but the reactions - from audience, people like me - can also be brutal. What's your experience of it as a new film-maker?

SO: Festivals are great. When we were making the film, we didn't have delusions of grandeur that this was going to be a big Hollywood blockbuster, or even a small Hollywood blockbuster! I didn't think it was necessarily a broad film, so I knew it was going to appeal to a bit of niche market of people, like me, who are interested in the subject matter. The best way of getting to those people is through film festivals.

The principal of a film festival has been somewhat co-opted by the larger festivals, who have turned the idea into something more towards commerce. That isn't necessarily a bad thing and obviously it can be a great thing, but originally a film festival was like this [ManIFF], exposing a community to a great slate of international films that they otherwise wouldn't have seen and giving them the opportunity to engage with film-makers.

I try to go to as many as possible that we get in to. It's difficult, it's cost prohibitive. But with this film there are still some grey areas, everything is not explicitly clear and I understand that, so going to festivals and being able to answer questions people have is kind of like being able to provide a commentary! With the price of admission, I'll also explain what the fuck the film is about!

FI: You sat in the ManIFF screening and you mentioned that you were still tinkering with some of the graphics...

SO: Yes, we just upgraded our graphics package and a few of them aren't finished. The sound is being remixed and the colour is not quite officially done yet. I just wanted to watch it and I took a few notes - I saw one bit where the sound was out of sync - fortunately there weren't any other problems. The film is done, we just need to put the rest of the graphics in and we wanted to bring the most up to date version here.

FI: One of the criticisms that gets levelled at documentaries in general is that many struggle to get away from the 'talking heads' structure. You mentioned the graphics you were adding, were you conscious of this and is this one of the ways you can get round it?

SO: For sure, yes. We edited for three years, so there are different incarnations of this film, some of which are more clinical and focus on talking heads more than others. But ultimately we decided on this approach with some talking heads to provide some context but also a bit of vérité and to make sure you get a bit of the community.

But yes, it's very difficult to know what's too long to be on there. Should you have music? Are people going to be bored? We try to put in a few sections that just contextualise what's going on in the vérité a little more and it takes the pressure off the Ramapoughs a little so that they don't have to tell every part of their own story.

FI: The typical final questions: what's next for you and when can you walk away from American Native?

SO: It's finished and is coming out in theatres in the States in September. Our next film festival is The San Antonio Film Festival on 1st August. In the South West, where they are, there's a large Native American population, so we're hoping to get some more exposure there.

Then we'll distribute the film in September and we're talking to networks and online for our deals there, but we'd like to get the theatre release done first and then pursue the rest.

As for what's for next for me, I'm in the middle of editing my next feature documentary, which is called An Accidental Climber and is about a guy who was climbing Everest in 2014, trying to become the oldest American ever to do so. The year he was there, there was an awful avalanche where sixteen Sherpas were killed and no one got to climb. The Sherpas used it as a labour strike to ask for better wages and benefits. So it starts off about this very simple guy who represents the Western climber who goes over to Everest and pays a lot of money to do so, to do this crazy thing, but then all of a sudden this crazy event happens and it takes a left hand turn and it moves to focus on the Sherpas, who are the real backbone of the 'Everest industry'.

FI: Are you sticking with documentaries do you think then?

SO: No, I have a feature that I'm developing as well that hopefully I'll be doing next Summer in Europe, which I'm very, very excited about. I'd love to be able to do it all and vacillate between commercials, short content, longer content.

Documentaries though, working with real people's lives and real implications... it's a lot. I'm a sensitive person and it's a lot to live with, so there's a real luxury to doing a narrative, where they're not real people.

Steve Oritt was talking to Sam Turner at ManIFF on Sunday 12th July 2015.

Manchester International Film Festival runs from 10th - 12th July 2015 at the AMC Manchester Great Northern Warehouse. More details are available on the ManIFF website.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.

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