Whiteclay documentary debuts Wednesday

Published Wednesday June 25, 2008

The controversy over the sale of alcohol in Whiteclay to Oglala Sioux tribal members is the subject of a new documentary film, “The Battle for Whiteclay.”

The film will premiere Wednesday night at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City, Iowa.

It is a five-year labor of love by producer/director Mark Vasina of Lincoln, who returned to Nebraska a few years ago to pursue documentary filmmaking after working for 10 years on Wall Street.

Now 54, he has completed his first film, and he’s proud of it.

The principal editor is Alex Muscu, with Vasina listed as co-editor. The film, which is nearly two hours long, will be shown in Omaha and Lincoln as early as this fall, Vasina said.

It follows Native activists, including Frank LaMere of Winnebago, from the streets of Whiteclay to the halls of the Nebraska State Capitol in their campaign to end alcohol sales in Whiteclay.

“Frank LaMere, he’s almost the moral compass within the film,” Vasina said. “There are no interviews with him, but there’s him in action throughout.”

Whiteclay’s beer stores sell an estimated 11,000 cans of beer a day, mostly to Oglala Sioux tribal members living two miles north of the town. The sale and possession of alcohol is banned on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Vasina’s involvement began in spring 2003 when LaMere and Nebraskans for Peace joined for a march to Whiteclay. Vasina videotaped the event.

That night, as he and a small film crew walked around Whiteclay, Vasina noticed that townspeople and merchants had cleaned up the town in advance.

“Even though there was an attempt by the locals to sanitize Whiteclay, it was pretty shocking to me, what I saw and the people that I talked to on the streets,” he said. “And I was hooked.”

As much as he admires the in-your-face documentary style made popular by Michael Moore in recent years, Vasina said he felt more comfortable tackling such a complex topic chronologically. The film includes footage of marches, protests, blockades and government meetings.

Vasina said seeing the film’s final cut made him think of the events he experienced over the past five years.

“I think the viewer comes away understanding that something is very, very wrong in Whiteclay,” he said. “And something definitely needs to be done about it.”

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