American Indian Film Festival honors "The Thick Dark Fog"

Published in Indian Country Today in November 2011. This article was part of a larger project funded by a grant from the George Polk Program for Investigative Reporting.

Director Randy Vasquez’s affecting movie about Walter Littlemoon’s traumatic childhood years in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation boarding schools has just won Best Documentary Feature at the 36th annual American Indian Film Festival, in San Francisco. “By making The Thick Dark Fog, we wanted to give the boarding-school discussion mainstream awareness,” said Vasquez. The film is his second feature; the first was the award-winning 2002 documentary Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, about a Salvadorean human-rights advocate.

Vasquez and Littlemoon at the festival.
          The honor to The Thick Dark Fog was among many bestowed by the festival, which is produced by the American Indian Film Institute. Best Film went to Shouting Secrets, directed by Korinna Sehringer, while Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, Iñupiaq, won Best Director for On The Ice.

          Vasquez, Littlemoon, and his wife, Jane Ridgway, also participated in a special panel discussion on the violent, repressive schools Indian children were required to attend until well into the 20th century and the enduring damage done to Native people, communities, culture and language as a result. Ridgway had collaborated with Littlemoon on the autobiography that inspired the documentary, They Called Me Uncivilized: The Memoir of an Everyday Lakota Man from Wounded Knee (iUniverse, 2009), and appeared in the film.

          An important part of Littlemoon’s journey was figuring out why he experienced alternating flashbacks and sensations of numbness—which he called the “thick dark fog.” After consulting a Harvard Medical School psychological-trauma expert, Littlemoon learned he was suffering from Complex Post Traumatic Stress, which arises from childhood ordeals. Once his fear had a name, he could fight it and win, he said. Littlemoon hoped others would take courage from his discovery and wage their own battles against the debilitating effects of the residential institutions.

          “Several younger people told me seeing the film helped them better understand their parents or grandparents,” said Littlemoon. “One guy was crying after the panel discussion and saying he now realized it was his boarding-school experience that had caused him to fight so much with his parents.”

          The revelations weren’t confined to the Native community, according to Littlemoon: “A Japanese man who’d been imprisoned as a child in World War II concentration camps told me he could now explain to his children how that affected him. I felt the film had impact. We got our message out, and it felt good.”

Ridgway, Littlemoon, Vasquez at panel discussion.
          For Littlemoon and Ridgway, participating in the film festival was satisfying, but also a shock. “Never in our wildest dreams did Walter and I imagine we’d be sitting in a movie theater and seeing ourselves on the big screen,” said Ridgway. “We were swarmed by well-wishers, who expressed gratitude for our bringing this issue forward. Wow. I could have cried right then and there.”

          Native American Public Telecommunications has funded the production of the movie so far; Vasquez is now seeking additional support via www.humanarts.org to ready it for PBS broadcast, probably next fall. In the meantime, he and producer Jonathan Skurnik are submitting the film to more festivals.

          Littlemoon and Ridgway are waiting to hear where they’ll travel next and hoping to screen The Thick Dark Fog on Pine Ridge. “Many of my older generation, who went through boarding school, have drunk themselves to death or just laid down and died,” said Littlemoon. “I want to show those who survive why they’re feeling that way, so they can begin to move on.”

c. Stephanie Woodard; photos courtesy of Randy Vasquez.

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