CANNES, France (AP) – South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation has often been depicted in film but rarely from the inside. The Cannes Film Festival entry “War Pony," though, sought to capture daily life on the reservation by relying on the perspectives of its Native American residents.
The film was directed by the actor Riley Keough and her friend, Gina Gammell. They both reside in Los Angeles. But while shooting Andrea Arnold's 2016 film “American Honey” across the U.S. heartland, Keough shared a scene with Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, two young Lakota men from Pine Ridge without any previous acting experience whom Arnold had enlisted as extras.
“We just got stuck in a motel room together for four hours,” Keough, the “Zola” and “The Girlfriend Experience” actor, recalled in an interview in Cannes. “Our scene was moved so we were just sitting there drinking beer.”
“She was the star there so I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ Just on set drinking,” says Sioux Bob, smiling. “I got paid $2,000 for, like, two hours of my time, so I’m not mad at it.”
But what began an unlikely friendship – and eventually collaboration – would stretch over the next seven years. Keough and Gammell would visit Pine Ridge and, later, Sioux Bob and Reddy would travel out to Los Angeles. Hanging out and making Snapchat videos eventually morphed into a screenplay written by Sioux Bob and Reddy.
From such modest beginnings and a lot of just sitting around drinking, “War Pony” emerged as not just an accomplished portrait of life on Pine Ridge but an enthusiastically received Cannes premiere in the festival's Un Certain Regard section.
“It’s so wild,” Keough says, laughing and shaking her head in disbelief. “Every time I look at Frank and Gina, I’m like, ‘What?’ We know how we started and how far we’ve come.”
“War Pony” follows a pair of protagonists. One is Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), a laconic 23-year-old who manages to get by hustling small jobs and who lands a gig with a nearby wealthy white rancher who profits and plunders from the reservation in various ways. The other is Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), a 12-year-old with a drug-dealing father. A series of loose-jointed, interconnected episodes follow that are both comic (a potentially lucrative poodle plays a co-staring role) and tragic.
The stories came straight from Reddy, Sioux Bob and others who drew from their own memories and experiences on the reservation. It was shot on the streets many of the actors live on.
“It wasn’t too hard to keep it authentic,” says Sioux Bob. “We’re all first-time actors. It’s Pine Ridge. This is your life. All this outlandish stuff you see in the movie, that was Tuesday.”
“War Pony,” which is seeking distribution in Cannes, features a cast mostly populated by Oglala Lakota and Sicangu Lakota citizens of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and Rosebud Sioux Tribe. A key figure was producer Willi White, a tribal citizen of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who has striven to bring more authentic depictions of Indigenous people to movie screens.
“Pine Ridge is really unique," says Sioux Bob. ”It’s really beautiful but it’s so chaotic. That’s what I wanted everyone to see. This isn’t just my reservation. All reservations are in rural areas like this and there are probably groups of kids doing the same things. And I wanted it to be showcased. That’s the reality."
In coming to Cannes, many among the cast and filmmakers were making their first overseas trip. The young Crazy Thunder hadn't heard of Cannes before. But the experience of making “War Pony” – grittily realistic, ultimately triumphant – and seeing his home honestly reflected on screen has inspired him.
“You want to go out and find more resources and reach for a different opportunity, reach for higher,” says Crazy Thunder.
That films are ultimately authored by one person, the “auteur,” is common belief at the Cannes Film Festival. But the community effort of “War Pony” challenges that notion.
“A lot of people made this film,” says Keough.