Knowing When to End It: Our Doc On a Knife Edge Took Seven Years to Make. Here’s What We Learned on the Way

For several years, our documentary On a Knife Edge had a great beginning and a wonderful middle, but no end in sight.

On the face of it, our story (about a teenage Lakota boy growing up on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation) had one very obvious end. As a coming-of-age story, surely it was going to finish when our boy became a man.

Well, yes, but what does “becoming a man” actually mean? Manhood is not a mere physical milestone achieved by reaching a certain age. It’s a psychological journey toward a more adult, philosophical outlook. That voyage can take a while. As filmmakers, you need a high degree of commitment to realize a story like this.

On a Knife Edge, from initial reconnaissance to final post, took us seven years to complete. We weren’t filming the doc all the time, but by chipping away, we managed to cover all the key moments in our story. The trick was spotting these moments as they came up and trying to capture them instead of miss them! Here are some lessons I learned along the way.

Your last filming project often contains the seeds of the next.

I’d previously spent five years producing a doc in the U.S. with director Tom Roberts for BBC’s Ghosts of the 7th Cavalry, a story centered on a veteran in South Dakota who was connected with the Sicangu Lakota Warriors on the Rosebud Reservation. At the end of principle filming in 2008, one of the contributors, Francis Whitebird, gave us a copy of a book that centered on the family of Guy Dull Knife Jr., a veteran that he had fought with in Vietnam. Spanning four generations, Joe Starita’s Pulitzer-shortlisted book, The Dull Knifes of Pine Ridge, told an extraordinary story of one family’s struggle and sacrifice.

Documentary On a Knife Edge is set in South Dakota

Backstory is not the same as story.

Every successful documentary hinges on a brilliant story. We knew we had a great starting point. The backstory of the Dull Knife family was truly epic: Uplifting in its humanity, it is a family tale in which duty is paramount. Starting in 1878, with Chief Dull Knife’s grueling midwinter freedom fight being hunted by the U.S. Cavalry, the story culminates a hundred years later with Guy Dull Knife Jr. fighting in the heat and humidity of Vietnam and returning home to less than a hero’s welcome. In between, the family survived the bitter experience of forced cultural assimilation and the start of the Pine Ridge Reservation system. They toured Europe with Buffalo Bill and fought in the trenches of World War I. The Dull Knifes went on to witness the birth of the American Indian Movement and got caught up in the dark, violent days of the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s. Each generation sacrificed for its people. It was a family story that echoed the larger Native American experience. But as great as the story was, it only got us so far. Where was the unfolding narrative? And what contemporary actuality would a documentary about the Dull Knifes follow? The lesson here: No matter how fascinating your backstory, successful documentaries need a driving and present narrative.

Compelling characters and a unique perspective are integral.

A night walk in On a Knife Edge

I set about organizing a scout with producer Eli Cane to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 2010 to meet with Guy Dull Knife Jr. We wondered how their present-day challenges chimed with those of previous generations, and if upon their shoulders, a feature documentary could sit. This trip immediately revealed the strength of the youngest Dull Knife generation, epitomized by teenager George Dull Knife. Thirteen when we first met, George was already an articulate and politicized young man. He was open about the challenges he faced growing up on the reservation—the alcohol and the gangs—but he also remained positive and optimistic about his future. George had a genuine sense of self and a great love and admiration for his father, Guy Jr.

Guy was also clearly a remarkable man. He was running a household of over a dozen kids as a single father. Quietly authoritative, he determinedly passed down tradition and a sense of duty to his kids. Clearly he would be a central figure in our doc too. So we started to film. We explored George’s relationship with his father, his family and his history. At the back of our mind was the question of whether George would one day take the path of the Dull Knife family before him and follow the call of his people.

Sometimes not filming something is more valuable than filming everything.

Many docs have been made on the Pine Ridge Reservation, often focusing on the hardships and the sensational headlines. We didn’t want to shy away from these issues, but we wanted George’s perspective front and center to use the film as an opportunity to see through his eyes and over his shoulder. At first, we had lists of things we thought we needed to film, questions we thought we needed to ask. But eventually, we learned to just go with the flow, and the more we did, the better the material we got. Days went by where we’d just hang out, chatting with George and his father Guy, and we spent much more time not filming than filming. Our production process had become organic. On an observational doc, it’s fair to say that time spent not filming pays dividends.

Don’t fear an episodic approach.

Longitudinal docs have the gestation period of an elephant. We quickly embraced the episodic, both in our approach to filming and in our storytelling. We’d fly in, stay a week or two and film. Then we’d fly out, return a season later and do the same thing again. While the stories and concerns we filmed would shift each time, there was a sense of gradual, almost epic, story development. Most of the time, we had a small crew of three: producer Eli doing sound, Steve Robinson on camera and myself. Sometimes we could afford to get only one or two of us out. I shot a two-week block on my own and several smaller weekly blocks too. Eli did pretty much the same. Three years in and we had captured a lot of great material. We had nicely established George and his father, Guy, as characters and learned a lot about the texture and reality of their world. Through Guy’s artwork and a series of painted animations produced by Nebraska animator Michael Burton, we’d also found a unique way to convey the family history without using a single piece of archive footage. (We effectively made our own.) But while a fascinating father-son film was developing, George’s coming-of-age story hadn’t yet emerged.

Character is action in documentary, as in drama.

By the middle of 2012, we’d spent pretty much all of our hard earned funds—ironically just at the very moment George’s trajectory started becoming dramatic. That summer, Guy was called to lead a security group of the local American Indian Movement (AIM) Grassroots organization. The group lent their support to protests in White Clay, Nebraska, against liquor stores who profited from selling alcohol to residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcoholic drinks were banned. In dramatic street protests, George grew in stature before our eyes. Taking responsibility for organizing his father’s AIM security group, he went up to the front line and stood up directly to Nebraska’s sheriffs. The material was riveting. It was the start a journey that would later take George and his father’s security group all the way to the historic protests at Standing Rock. But before this, other events would lead George to giving up protesting altogether.

Representatives of the American Indian Movement Grassroots organization gather in protest

Your film’s true meaning only emerges in the edit.

After five years of filming, and many different twists and turns in our story, we began editing. Much of our early cutting during the shooting period was producing trailers to raise more money. We only started editing in earnest in 2014, and then concertedly in 2015. In observational documentary, the story you think you’ve shot is not always the one you actually have in the can. Now that we finally had a beginning and a middle, we started editing in the hope that we would ‘find’ our end. While the film had a very resonant father-son theme, it was mostly a coming-of-age story following George as he became increasingly involved in the AIM protest movement. Our early editing attempts to portray his journey from child to man by showing his rising levels of self and political awareness were hamstrung by the fact that George already had a well-formed sense of self when we first met. The narrative we were creating was not entirely true.

What we really had was a story about an individual discovering a sense of duty, then experiencing disillusionment, before rediscovering and reappraising the concept of duty in the film’s final act. When we actually edited that, we finally had the end to the film. So don’t prejudge your edit. Watch and listen carefully to your rushes, and you will end up crafting a better and more truthful film.

Five years of filming can culminate in 55 minutes of riveting actuality.

There was a definite moment that signaled to us that we were filming the end of our story. It heralded a major turning point in George’s journey. It was filmed in just 55 minutes early one morning in February 2015. We were in the process of catching up with George and Guy, discussing their strategy following a series of demonstrations they had held in Rapid City. George was now 19. He had become disillusioned with the protest movement, and it really showed. Guy, on the other hand, was galvanized, fully engaged and clearly frustrated with George’s demeanor. What began as a chat between the three of us quickly became an extremely telling argument between the two of them. To say you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife is an understatement. We were already filming them in their kitchen and instinctively kept rolling to capture their discussion. The climatic scene that emerged not only distilled the themes of our film, but it also echoed the very title itself, On a Knife Edge. Their argument was seismic. The discussion itself seemed to motivate a change of heart in George. It renewed his resolve to continue with his father to fight the injustice, discrimination and racism that their people face. George had returned to the fold, and we had a film.

(L to R) Eli Cane on sound and Steven Robinson on camera shooting footage for On a Knife Edge

Of course, there would have been no film at all without the openness of Guy, George and their family throughout the filming. We thank them for allowing us to document their lives in such intimate detail over so many years. Witnessing their stoicism and bravery, and experiencing their humor and generosity has been a privilege. We may have finished our film, but the Dull Knife story continues. MM

Watch a clip from the film below.

On a Knife Edge – Clip from the Project – for moviemaker.com from Normal Life Pictures on Vimeo.

Jeremy Williams is an award-winning filmmaker who also lectures at the School of Film and Television at Falmouth University, England. On a Knife Edge premiered at the 16th San Francisco Documentary Festival in June 2017 and will broadcast in the U.S. on America Reframed on the PBS World Channel in November 2017.

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