Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Jennifer Jessum--'HOLY MAN: THE USA vs. DOUGLAS WHITE'
By KJ Relth
Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Jennifer Jessum, director of HOLY MAN: THE USA vs. DOUGLAS WHITE.
Synopsis: HOLY MAN: THE USA vs. DOUGLAS WHITE, narrated by Martin Sheen, is the story of Douglas White, an 89-year-old Lakota Sioux medicine man from Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, who spent 17 years in federal prison for a crime he did not commit. During the making of this film, filmmakers uncovered new evidence of White's "actual innocence" and brought the case back to federal court. HOLY MAN offers a rare glimpse into the mysterious world of Lakota religion, their intimate connection to the land, and a provocative expose of the systemic injustice Native Americans face in the criminal justice system.
IDA: What made you get started as a documentary filmmaker?
Jennifer Jessum: My husband and filmmaking partner Simon J. Joseph, Ph.D., and I both have a long history as fine artists and a strong commitment to social justice, so documentary filmmaking was a natural step for us. The documentary genre allows us to combine our skills as artists with our ability to tell well-researched, academically-sound stories. [It also] offers quite a lot of creative freedom in story-telling styles. Film is a powerful medium and the documentary form is particularly well-suited to raising social awareness. Prior to working on this film, I was working on narrative, commercials, music videos, and dance films. It wasn’t until I took a documentary film class at USC that I really fell in love with the documentary form.
IDA: What inspired you to tell this story?
JJ: We first met the subject of our film, Douglas White, 21 years ago on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. We had the great privilege of traveling around with him for a summer and witnessing firsthand his tireless dedication and service to his people. Several months later we learned that he had been incarcerated. Shortly after learning of his conviction we ended up moving to Denver, where he was incarcerated, so we would visit him every week and listen to his amazing stories. We knew they were true because we had witnessed them first hand. This was our relationship to him for a very long time.
We always wished that we could do more to help him, but this was all pre-Internet and we didn’t know what we could do. So when I took my first documentary film class at USC many years later, I knew right away that I wanted to tell Douglas' story. At first we were very focused on recording him for his people. [He was] a living library of ancient wisdom and we wanted to help preserve his knowledge and life story for future generations. Douglas was part of an ancient oral tradition and we knew that he had to be recorded on film in order to accurately preserve his body language, physical gestures, mannerisms, humor, speech, and spiritual presence. The problems began when the Federal Bureau of Prisons refused to allow us to bring in a camera or audio equipment to record Douglas. The warden claimed that this would be a "security risk"—we couldn’t understand how an 82 year old man could have been a "security risk." This moved us to really re-examine his court case and we started seeing a lot of problems in it. After that, there was no turning back. We had to do whatever we could to tell his story.
IDA: Did your vision of the way this film would come together change over the course of production? How did that evolution occur?
JJ: The film definitely evolved over time. I think that is the beauty of the documentary form—you have to have vision and persistence to pursue a story, but you also have to let the film become what it wants to become. You have to allow the story to unfold the way it wants to unfold. After the first few months of production, we went back to Pine Ridge for our second filming trip and were finally able to track down the mother of the two young boys in the case. It took a long series of wild goose chases to track her down as many people on the reservation don’t have phones and the villages are often very far apart. When we finally found her, and she agreed to be interviewed, she admitted that she didn’t really know if the crime had happened or not. She even told us that one of her two sons had told her it wasn’t true. We knew then that we had a film!
The real breakthrough, though, came when the older grandson, Roy Helper, Jr., whom the government built their case around, confessed on film. We had interviewed Roy a couple of times before but Roy called us one day and told us he needed to talk to us right away. His wife had just given birth that morning to their son, Jacob, and he wanted to let go of this burden that he had been carrying around for years. We met at a hotel room in Rapid City and he confessed—on film—that Douglas had never committed the crime he was accused of. He told us that he and his younger brother (who were both very young at the time and suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome) had been forced to lie about Douglas. He said they were afraid that they would be arrested if they ever spoke up. After Roy confessed, we were able to re-open Douglas’ case. Terry Pechota, the former U. S. Attorney of South Dakota, agreed to take on the case pro bono. This was not just a momentous event for the film; it also created the possibility for Douglas’ case to be re-opened. [It] was also a major cathartic moment for Roy, as it helped inspire him in turning his life around.
IDA: What were some of the challenges you faced while you were making this film? How did you overcome those obstacles?
JJ: Many of the challenges involved in making the film came, of course, from our limited financial resources. Most of the shooting was just the two of us driving thousands of miles back and forth from LA to South Dakota in our little Honda. Sometimes we’d have to drive hundreds of miles a day on the reservation just tracking people down, so there was a lot of physical detective work that needed a lot of persistence. Our greatest obstacles, however, came in dealing with governmental agencies. Not only did the Federal Bureau of Prisons refuse to allow us to film Douglas, but Douglas’ defense attorney, along with the BIA investigator, the FBI, the federal prosecutor, the U.S. Attorney, and the federal judge all refused to be interviewed as well. When we finally got Douglas’ case back in the court system, the U.S. Attorney’s office fabricated a legal technicality to prevent Douglas from getting a new trial and the judge went along with it. These were pretty formidable obstacles and the only way we could really deal with them was to be persistent and committed to the truth. Our biggest obstacle now is our ongoing fundraising efforts to try to promote the film and get Douglas’ story out to the world.
IDA: As you’ve screened HOLY MAN: THE USA vs. DOUGLAS WHITE, how have audiences (or, if they’ve seen it, your subjects) reacted to the film?
JJ: People have been really moved by the film and the responses vary from intense sadness to outrage. What is so interesting is how different people connect to different parts of the story. Some connect with Douglas’ life as a servant and healer. Others connect with the history. Others are interested in the legal case. We are really happy that the film touches people on many more levels than we expected. I think our most rewarding experience, however, was premiering the film on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations. There are so few films made about the first peoples of this country and even fewer are told through the eyes and voices of the first peoples themselves. Seeing how meaningful it was to the Lakota people made it all worthwhile! It was, and is, a very beautiful and humbling experience to be trusted with such an important story and to have the support and appreciation of the participants and the people is a true honor.
IDA: So now that this film has made it into DocuWeeks, have you had a chance to look beyond that at what’s coming next?
JJ: We are very happy to be a part of DocuWeeks and to be able to get the film out to a
larger audience. Our goal is to educate, as we believe that awareness is the first step to change. We are still fundraising to help promote the film but we’re now moving into the next phase: setting up semi-theatrical screenings around the country and making the film available for educational sales. We really want to make the film available in schools and take the attention we get from the film and channel it into supporting positive change on the reservations. We’ve launched a non-profit foundation called The Mitakupi Foundation—"Mitakupi" is Lakota for "my people"—which is designed to combat
the teen suicide epidemic by creating and supporting programs for the youth.
We just finished production on a short film which followed Lakota youth on a 500-mile run around the Black Hills. The film includes interviews with many of the participants as well as prominent community leaders who are using the Lakota traditions and spirituality to address the many serious challenges Lakota youth continue to face. We will teach film to reservation youth as part of the summer arts program we will be launching next year and we just shot a series of music videos for a young and incredibly talented Lakota rapper/singer as part of our mentoring program. More information on the foundation can be found at www.mitakupi.com.
HOLY MAN: THE USA vs. DOUGLAS WHITE will be screening August 10 through 16 at IFC Center in New York, and August 17 through 23 at Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.