Award-winning documentarian, Josh Tickell and his wife Rebecca have made exceptional environmental films for over fifteen years. Recently however, they completed their first dramatic movie, a riveting and powerful ecological film. “On Sacred Ground” is based on the true events during the highly controversial 2016 construction of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline that runs through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in South and North Dakota that potentially threatens their vital water supply and sacred burial grounds. The movie just opened at Monica Laemmle Theater on 2nd Street and may be the Tickells’ finest work.
I first met Josh Tickell in 2008 at his office then on Main Street in Ocean Park as he was about to release “Fuel” a partially light hearted but important film about environmental damage stemming from fossil fuel. Josh had built a vehicle that ran strictly on used cooking grease from restaurants. It powered Josh’s “Veggie Van” across country as Josh, like an environmental Johnny Appleseed, spread the word about pollution free fuels.
Interestingly, “On Sacred Ground,” is also about fossil fuel damage but is definitely not lighthearted. The film features DANIEL (William Mapother), a talented and handsomely rugged but troubled journalist and ex-Marine in his 40’s who lives in Ohio with his wife, JULIE (Amy Smart.) ELLIOT (David Arquette), plays a shady but at times charming executive in a powerful right-wing Houston-based PR employed by the oil companies to promote the pipeline in the media during one of the most heated confrontations with Native American tribes in modern U.S. history.
Inspired by true events and set in the second half of 2016 prior to the election of Donald Trump, “On Sacred Ground” opens with Daniel’s and Julie’s rocky marriage. Julie’s expecting their first child, they have money issues, and Daniel, who served in the Afghan War, suffers occasional episodes of PTSD that include war flashbacks and nightmares.
When his military tour was over Daniel continued working in journalism, mostly free-lance. The PR firm discovers some of Daniel’s reporting is pro business, he’s a Republican and in need of money with a baby on the way. Thus he’s a prime candidate to counter the unflattering coverage the oil companies are receiving about the growing protests. The firm eagerly hires Daniel as a reporter for the Houston Daily and flies him, accompanied by Elliot, to the construction site in the Dakotas. After days of interviews, arranged by Elliot, Daniel files his report essentially told from the standpoint he knows his employer wants.
Exhausted, Daniel returns home just in time to join Julie in their birthing classes. To her chagrin, in class, he takes an urgent call from the PR firm that persuades him to return to the Pipeline the following day by offering a huge increase in pay.
As Daniel arrives at the protest the Native Americans and other protesters are being subjected to violent treatment from the police and military. The war like scene reminds Daniel of Afghanistan, including his brush with death in a helicopter crash. This time, however, Daniel interviews who he wants to, not just who Elliot’s introduces him to. He speaks to Mika, a young female Native American leader in the tribal community. He also meets with an upstanding middle-aged lawyer and is shown federal treaties going back over 100 years granting the land permanently to the Native Americans. The lawyer explains the pipeline is also a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Daniel gets the protesters’ perspective on the violent confrontations. He’s particularly impressed by the forgiveness ceremony of the tribes and former the U.S. Army vets who have come from all over America to join the protesters. And even though the Native Americans feel betrayed by Daniel’s previous piece, he’s emotionally moved by the care they give him after his severe PTSD flashback. Though vehemently chastised by Elliot and the PR firm for his new point of view, it’s clear Daniel’s beginning on the road to internal peace and new found courage to fight against injustice
“On Sacred Ground,” first venture into dramatic films, is a tightly constructed 85-minute authentic representation of Standing Rock. The actor ensemble is outstanding, including, to name but a few, Mariel Hemingway, David Arquette, Kerry Knuppe, Amy Smart, Frances Fisher, who in real life participated in the protests, and William Maypother who also co-wrote the screenplay. “On Sacred Ground” captures an ongoing crisis about fossil fuel, corporate power and the neglected rights of Native Americans. And they did so while telling a very human story about the every day problems Daniel and Julie face as, in one way or another, do we all.