Strength through healthy minds and healthy hearts

By Ben-Alex Dupris

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Impact Producer Lab fellow Ben-Alex Dupris reflects on a boulder in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

I left Standing Rock, North Dakota by Christmas 2016, physically and emotionally spent from nearly five months of filming what is now considered the biggest Indian uprising since the Battle of Little Bighorn. In the latter confrontation, General George Armstrong Custer of the Seventh Cavalry of the United States died in humiliating defeat. It still serves as a badge of honor for Indigenous people as a moment of pride, knowing that our ancestors fought hard with one heart for the people.

This story was built into the heart of Standing Rock too, as the retelling of ghosts that echoed the return of Oceti Sakowin, the Great Sioux Nation. We had reunited once again, for a final stand against the corporate pillaging of Energy Transfer Partners and their oil cronies. It was a modern day colonizer story of land grabbing, and extractive resource extortion. But this time, we were armed with cellphones, GoPro cameras, and the internet. The plot line was so thick with righteous irony, there was a sense that we couldn’t possibly lose, in the spirit of Crazy Horse.

We unified all nations through the passion of our youth, the resilient prayers of the women, and all the Nations gathered to stand strong. It was beautiful to see us dancing again, in street clothes, without eagle feathers or decorations. The spirit was spontaneous.

Our laptops were our shields and our keyboards were bow and arrows. We shot back with virtual words across social media after every grueling battle that we faced, from dog attacks to tear gas grenades.

We saw blood, bones breaking, and words stabbed our ears until our minds bled with surreal anti-Indian rhetoric not seen since the days of segregation. Back then, most businesses had signs posted that said, “No Dogs and Indians allowed.” This was the level of racism that filled the air. It was a powder keg of emotions.

In 2017, the Dakota Access Pipeline (the black snake) was completed. Despite all our efforts, it wasn’t enough.

In that following year, I experienced severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and my alcoholism became so bad I couldn’t function without waking up to a pint of booze. I was deep in the material, reliving the worst times, frame by frame as we sorted the footage for our film.

Looking back, no one was talking about their feelings, and we were all trying to move forward as if nothing happened. My breaking point was an intervention by a dear friend, who sat me down and asked, “do you want to die?” I realized that I did not. But it took a few more nights tripping on my beer to convince me I was close to a dirt nap, the big sleep. So I put down the bottle, the film editing, and everything else in my life to get help immediately.

That was almost a year and a half ago, and through a lot of searching and spiritual therapy I have emerged to see that documentary filmmaking and journalistic PTSD is real. There is an absolute need for developing protocols for helping our community of frontline filmmakers understand the implications of our work, from a mental health perspective.

While attending our Firelight Media Impact Producers Fellowship retreat recently, I was moved deeply by our workshop on trauma informed care, presented by Twiggy Garcon and Sonya Childress. We covered approaches to this emerging, yet complicated discussion. Both filmmakers, and their protagonists, face many issues in the process of making deep, highly emotionally work.

As people of color working in our own communities, we are so close to the content that proximity can be a blessing and a curse. It’s beautiful to tell our own stories, but we have to learn how to find our balance. I’m excited about this emerging discussion led by Firelight, as we work towards solutions that can address this complications for our social justice warriors across all spectrums of documentary filmmaking. The nights are long and the battle is always uphill. As our community moves towards a defined support system, manifesto, or funded initiatives we can continue to fight another day.

This is a story about the people, and our deep love for the art of revolution through creativity. With healthy minds and a community who understands what we are going through, it can liberate us to create real change.

We are all suffering from the effects of intergenerational colonialism, but it doesn’t have to be a shackle. We are all globally Indigenous, and together can create the world we want our children and future ancestors to inherit.

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Ben-Alex Dupris grew up on the Colville Confederated Tribes Indian reservation in Washington State, where he is an enrolled member. He is a 2018 Concordia Artist-in-residence, 2017 Sundance Institute producer’s fellow, and 2016 Redford Center Grantee. He recently spent time creating social justice media during the occupation at Standing Rock, ND and continues this Native advocacy work through his company Antelabbit. He is currently in production for “Sweet-Blood-Dance,” a film about Two-Spirit powwow dancers challenging traditional culture by competing as a same-sex couple, in dances intended for “one man and one woman.” He is a Firelight Media 2018 Impact Producer Lab fellow.

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Firelight Media is dedicated to supporting documentary filmmakers of color and cultivating audiences for their work. We’re #changingthestory.

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