“West of Thunder,” which debuts today, January 20, is a tale of revenge versus peace and what happens when a man moves into a Pine Ridge Reservation border town nine years after the massacre at Wounded Knee. Lakota language and cultural specialists and Lakota actors were involved in the production of the film, which has already won film festival awards and outstanding reviews.
The film will be educational to those who are not familiar with Native history, and has a philanthropic end result. This film, and the production of several more in the planning stages, will raise money to open Sunka Wakan International School on Pine Ridge.
“The K-12 school will be open and free to the Pine Ridge Reservation and will be internationally accredited through Cambridge University in England,” said Dan Davies, who co-authored the “West of Thunder” script and plays the main character. “We thought, let’s make a movie that actually helps people. Instead of making millions of dollars and putting it into a new yacht, you might as well do something good with that money.”
Lakota values and “Mitakuye Oyasin” (We are all related) are major themes in the film and Executive Producer Jody Marriott Bar-Lev said the same message will resonate throughout the Sunka Wakan school project as well. The school will provide Lakota culture and language, and the surrounding land will host a horse sanctuary. The school will also have its own film studio.
Marriott Bar-Lev has had a long relationship with Pine Ridge. In the 1990s, she brought more than 100 wild mustangs from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to the Pine Ridge Reservation. There she met Monica Terkildsen, Lakota, and over the years, they discussed the possibilities of this project. Marriott Bar-Lev is also an educator, she founded The Academy International School in Wisconsin, which is also accredited by Cambridge. With a background in television and filmmaking, Marriott Bar-Lev said, “My husband Dr. Avi Bar-Lev and I decided to executive produce the film. It has a good message to get out there. Michael Blake, who wrote ‘Dances With Wolves,’ was very helpful as a mentor.”
For Marriott Bar-Lev, authenticity was key. “Monica introduced us to Larry Swalley, Lakota, Corbin Conroy, Lakota, and Albert Red Bear, Lakota, and they were the guiding force—from the draft, to the language, to all of the Lakota aspects of the movie,” she said. “Educators from Pine Ridge will be involved in the school, and David Behar and Shaul Kaner, architects in Israel, are working on the school designs. Others from France, Germany, and England will also be involved. It sort of has an energy of its own, and I hope the end result will be a life changing opportunity for the Lakota people.”
Actor Larry Swallow (also known as Larry Swalley) said, “They used our traditional concepts in how the main character was portrayed. Wilmer Mesteth provided all the written language for the movie and some of it was really old language. Even those who were Lakota speakers here couldn’t decipher some of it.”
The Sunka Wakan Dragonfly Film Studio’s movie is now available on DVD through Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Best Buy and more, with screenings through video on demand venues including Netflix planned for the future. The producers acknowledge that the small budget film is unlikely to raise the $13 million needed to build the school right away, however, the positive reviews and awards from prestigious film festivals have helped to raise funding for future films that share the same goal. Three new films are already in pre-production, and Marriott Bar-Lev said all of them have a purpose and a universal message that are primarily entertaining and creative. Davies said raising money for the school will be a work in progress.
The film is being distributed worldwide by Indican Pictures of Hollywood. Shelli Sonstein, movie critic and radio host of Classic Rock Radio Q104.3 in New York City, said in her review, “It’s a really unusual movie with an interesting twist. There is a spiritual voice in this movie I had not heard or seen before in a movie. It’s done in a really creative way. It reminds us of our history and it also reminds us of the reality of today for the Lakota… very educational.”
Mark Olsen, movie critic of the Los Angeles Times said the main character in the film “turns the injustices suffered by the Natives back onto the settlers, acting as a righteous defender of the people who have been shunted off to their reservation,” and “Many of the performers have a distinctly unpolished way about them… which gives the entire film an unvarnished quality that remains curiously engaging.”
Movie critic G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that the film “looks like a multimillion-dollar production—cinematographer John Stanier shot ‘Rambo III’ among other films—and the sets are amazing.”
The film was awarded Best Film (Peace) and Best Film (Human Rights) by Hollywood’s Political Film Society. The film shared Best Film honors with films in other categories such as Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (Democracy) and Ben Affleck’s “Argo” (Expose). In Europe, “West of Thunder” won Best Western along with “Django Unchained” at the Almeria Western Film Festival, in Almeria, Spain.
The film has also been invited to be included in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C.