There is nothing ordinary about “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” a deeply felt road movie based on Portland author Kent Nerburn’s book of the same title.
Shot in 18 days with a two-man crew and funded through a Kickstarter campaign, the film is defying Hollywood logic, outperforming summer movies with far bigger budgets.
It’s no wonder. This film is a beautiful story told in a simple, unassuming way. It takes viewers by the hand into the heart of the Lakota country amid the ghosts of Wounded Knee and long hidden experiences.
Furthermore, it gives viewers a look at life as it is now for many Native Americans, stripped of all artifice and stereotypes.
Since Sept. 1, viewers have filled Salem Cinema for the film Nerburn worked 20 years to get to the big screen.
“Neither Wolf Nor Dog” tells the story of a Lakota elder and his friend who rope Nerburn (played by Christopher Sweeney) and take him into their world, encouraging him to consider their reality.
Salem Cinema owner Loretta Miles said “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is the very type of film she seeks out and that finds her.
Miles said her goal is to offer movies “that might open eyes, educate and offer insight into other cultures and ways of being. ‘Neither Wolf Nor Dog’ is a perfect example of allowing the viewer to broaden their own horizons while being entertained.”
It also promotes and reinforces cultural acceptance and appreciation, which is particularly important in today’s political climate, she added.
Director Steven Lewis Simpson is doing all promotion himself, contacting movie houses one-by-one to get this cinematic gem to audiences.
This dogged determination and audience response shows that viewers still love simple, straightforward stories without a lot of trickery.
Speaking from his Portland home by phone, author Nerburn said the film allows white viewers to face painful but necessary messages.
“We’ve hidden the Native American reality from our experience. We’ve not been comfortable with the fact that we occupied lands inhabited by other people and made efforts to exterminate these people,” Nerburn said.
“This film gives a gentle look at what happened,” he added.
The Native American characters show themselves in all their humor and intelligence, Nerburn said. “This is a world that is in the middle of our nation and no one sees it.”
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is star Dave Bald Eagle who plays Dan, a Lakota elder. He was 95 during filming, and died two years later in July of 2016.
“He’s just astonishing,” Nerburn said, adding that Bald Eagle was one of the last remaining traditional Indian elders raised in the old ways and who had loved ones at the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890.
Given the chance to speak the role of a traditional elder, Bald Eagle simply became the character. Simpson threw out the script, allowing him to speak from the heart, Nerburn said.
An actor, a stunt double and champion dancer who danced with Marilyn Monroe, Bald Eagle performed his last role as Dan. He told the director “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is the only movie about Native Americans that told the truth.
Nerburn helped write the script, and spent three days on the set where he was pressed into service to find the dog to play Fatback, a key character.
Simpson changed and adapted his book for film. Nerburn said he did a wonderful job. “Watching it be developed from another artist’s point of view was a joy to me,” he said.
With such a small budget, Simpson bought and sold all the equipment used, and did all the postproduction work. He had one sound man on the set, the full extent of his crew.
On many occasions, Sweeney’s skills as a car mechanic (as well as an actor) proved vital to keep the vintage Buick running.
Nerburn sees his main role as a teacher and added the film is an opportunity to learn.
“There is an elder world behind our American culture. We need to learn about it and respect it. They have many teachings to give us.”
The Salem showing of “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” is part of a west coast tour that consists of screenings in Oregon, Washington, and California. The film is also spreading to theaters across the country.
For more information and a schedule of showings go to the Neither Wolf Nor Dog page on Facebook.
Director: Steven Lewis Simpson
Based on book by Portland author Kent Nerburn
1 hour, 50 minutes
Starting Sept. 15: Palace Theatre, 200 N Water Street, Silverton
Synopsis: A white author is sucked into a road trip through the heart of Native American Country by a Lakota elder and his best friend forcing the author into a deeper understanding of native life.