‘Battle for Whiteclay’ premieres in Sioux City

Published Sunday June 22, 2008

The ongoing controversy surrounding the western Nebraska village of Whiteclay, population 14, is the subject of a documentary film, “The Battle for Whiteclay,” which will make its world premiere at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Orpheum Theatre in Sioux City.

The film is the culmination of a 5-year effort, a labor of love, by producer/director Mark Vasina of Lincoln, a Colon, Neb. native who returned to the Cornhusker state a few years ago to pursue documentary filmmaking after working for 10 years on Wall Street, first as a bank regulator, then in the risk management field.

The biggest risk he took may have been leaving Wall Street behind to attend the New York Film Academy, where he stood alone among his younger classmates in his love for the documentary film. Now 54, he has completed his first film, and he’s proud of it.

Vasina will be on hand for a panel discussion following the premiere, along with American Indian activists Frank LaMere, a Winnebago leader from South Sioux City, and Duane Martin Sr., an Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

This will be the first showing of the finished film, nearly 2 hours long, though there have been screenings on some college campuses of earlier, rough-cut versions of the film, he said. The principal editor is Alex Muscu, with Vasina listed as co-editor. Later, perhaps this fall, the film will be shown in Omaha and Lincoln, and Vasina hopes to enter it in various film festivals.

“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.”

The film follows LaMere, Martin and Russell Means through the streets of Whiteclay to the halls of Nebraska’s State Capitol in their campaign to end alcohol sales in Whiteclay, a border town that sells 11,000 cans of beer a day to people who walk or drive from the South Dakota reservation. Since the reservation lands were established in 1868, the Oglalas have banned the sale and possession of alcohol on the Pine Ridge.

Vasina said his intention with documentary films was to work on social issue films.

Long involved with Nebraskans for Peace, he rejoined the activist group when he returned to the state. And since 1999, he noted, Whiteclay has been a big issue for that organization.That was the year two Oglala Lakota brothers were found murdered outside Whiteclay.

Though Vasina’s film basically covers the years 2003 to 2007, it begins, using footage he acquired, with a 2002 teach-in at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The 1999 murders are also covered.

The director’s involvement started in the spring of 2003 when LaMere and a large contingent from Nebraskans for Peace went to Pine Ridge and Whiteclay for a commemorative march. He was asked to put together a crew and videotape the event, which he did. Prominent state officials were on hand for what proved to be an impressive event.

“That was a particularly interesting march because it set it up that Oglala Lakota were led from Pine Ridge down to White Clay, and Frank LaMere led a group of Nebraskans from a point south of Whiteclay,” he said. Both groups converged in the middle of town.

Vasina and his small crew walked around town that first night, and he noticed how the townspeople and beer merchants were on their best bahavior, having cleaned up the town in advance. “They typically go around and hire people to clean up the streets with the beer cans and all that are lying around everywhere,” he said. “So 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. And I was hooked.”

Vasina said he didn’t choose the film.

“When I saw what was going on up there and began to work through the issues that most people have to work through in their minds, what’s right and what’s wrong and what should be allowed and what should be dealt with, I just became involved. And it chose me,” he said.

He expected to shoot the film in about a year, then edit it, but it didn’t work out that way.

“I knew that I couldn’t make the kind of film that I wanted to if I stopped after a year. There just wasn’t enough events,” he said. “I would have done a bunch of interviews, and it wouldn’t have been the same sort of film for me. I just pushed on, sort of open-ended, and last summer … I knew. I saw the film. I mean I saw the ending of the film, and I knew I had what I needed.”

He eschewed interviews and narration, instead filming events related to Whiteclay and presenting them in chronological order. Included are the commemorative marches, the protests, last summer’s so- called “blockade on the border,” and meetings of the Nebraska Liquor Commission and the Nebraska Legislature.

His “longitudinal documentary” is a more conservative kind of filmmaking he felt comfortable with considering the complexity of the issue, much as he admires the more opinionated, in-your-face style made popular by Michael Moore in recent years.

Vasina said he was shocked a bit himself when he saw the final cut, thinking of the events he experienced over the past 5 years.

“Even though there’s no narrator that says this is wrong and this is what we’ve got to do about it, 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. That’s certainly what I hope people will see.”

What: World premiere, documentary film, “The Battle for Whiteclay”
When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Orpheum Theatre
Admission: Free
Details: Panel discussion featuring producer/director Mark Vasina and American Indian activists Frank LaMere and Duane Martin Sr. will follow premiere at 8:30. Film focuses on controversy surrounding sale of alcohol from Nebraska border town to members of nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota where sale and ownership of liquor is banned.

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