The Thick Dark Fog, and an interview with director Randy Vasquez

Many people think the story ended for Native Americans with the loss of their land and culture to the white settlers. But this loss of home, family and tradition was just the beginning. Not many people know about the continued distortion and destruction of the native identity that took place in the form of the Indian boarding school system. Walter Littlemoon came forward as a survivor of the horrible abuses that he experienced in two of these schools via his book, They Called Me Uncivilized: Memoir of an Everyday Lakota Man from Wounded Knee, which he wrote with the help of his wife Jane. In the documentary The Thick Dark Fog, we follow Walter as he continues to relate his experiences, revisits the places where his childhood was taken from him, and regains his sense of self.

Among the many captivating points to this film, there's a particular power to the fact that we witness a man talking through and expressing the effects of trauma, laying himself emotionally bare on several occasions. The film is a refreshing and heartbreaking portrait of someone powerful enough to come forward with his story. My greatest hope is that Walter's story continues to effect change within the Native American community, and prompts others to speak out and resolve the unresolved pains that have plagued generations.

This is director Randy Vasquez's second fearless journey with a strong survivor. He also made the film Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story, an incredible documentary about the life and activism of Maria Guardado, a Salvadoran political refugee who was tortured during the civil war in El Salvador.

It was a pleasure to get to interview Randy about The Thick Dark Fog and his continued involvement in Native American culture and film.

CR: Was Walter already familiar with your work by the time you contacted him?

RV: Yes. I sent him Testimony and after he and Jane had seen it they agreed that I would direct Walter's story.  Walter told me he was drawn to how graphic it was both for the archival footage and for Maria's testimony.

CR: What was it like to spend time with Walter and Jane?

RV: Perfect hospitality. I spent most of my time roaming around their 140-acre property shooting B-roll and just taking it all in. Snakes, turkeys, bald-eagles, magpies, rabbits, deer, owls and cattle. It was heaven. And I was lucky to experience all four seasons there on my various trips out. Walking around the deserted Sun Dance area and thinking. I would go to the massacre site [at Wounded Knee] and hang out, take it in, try to understand it all. I did my first Sweat Lodge in Wounded Knee put together by one of Walter's nephews. It was to honor a mother in the community whose son was going off to war. About 15 people were in there.

CR: Was it difficult to get Walter to share his life and experiences with you?

RV: No. He always talked to me and gave me what I wanted. Doesn't mean it was easy for him to talk about some things. I kept reminding myself that I'm not a professional therapist. If he got lost in a certain memory I wouldn't know how to pull him back. I'd read about that kind of thing in my research and Jane helped a lot by being off to the side during the interviews. I was out of my league psychologically speaking, so I tried to say as little as possible and listen. But we were all aware that the film would get Walter's message of healing and survival to an even larger Indian audience than his book. That's what kept me going for the seven years of making the film, and was a lesson I'd learned with Maria Guardado and the effect Testimony had had on folks, especially the different Salvadoran communities around the country and Canada. So Walter was very open with his experience because of our goals, and he went to deep places without any prompting from me. He and Maria Guardado are a lot alike in how they can just start talking about their tough memories. Maria had the Program for Torture Victims in Los Angeles to help her. Walter had no such services around him. He and Jane worked it out themselves.

CR: Have any of the people who committed the abuses at the boarding school come forward, or offered an apology in any way?

RV: Not that I know of. Some churches in the US and Canada have apologized.

CR: Have other people who went through experiences like Walter’s spoken out?

RV: Yes. A lot from Canada. They're ahead of the curve up there in regards to healing and putting the issue on the front page. There was the same government school system for their Indians, too, the Residential Schools they called them. There are a few books on the subject and growing. Some boarding school memoirs talk more about the positive. The foundation that was born out of  The Thick Dark Fog is called Cante Sica, which is a non-profit that is just beginning to record boarding school memories from those alumni who want to participate. They're starting with former students living in southern California.

CR: What have people said to you about the film?

RV: The response has been positive so far. About 100 educational institutions have bought it along with some tribes and doctors. We had the world premiere at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, and Walter and Jane flew out to attend. When they arrived home back in Wounded Knee, one of their telephone messages was of a man singing an honoring song in Lakota for Walter. Just the song nothing else.

CR: The issues that Walter Littlemoon and Maria Guardado deal with in your films are very intense. What have you taken away from your films?

RV: I enriched my life perspective by spending time with folks in El Salvador and Indians around the U.S. Also, during the making of The Thick Dark Fog, I returned to get my B.A. at UCLA and I decided to enter their American Indian Studies program, well-respected nationally, to supplement the making of the film and beyond. As a result, I'm locked in a nice groove of promoting more than ever stories from native America. A healthy American Indian cinema movement is good for America. I've been to a few native film festivals and see some totally unique story lines/points of view -- exciting stuff.  The American Indian Film Festival, which is run by Michael Smith, is where I've learned about and been exposed to some great native cinema. The potential impact of the endless experiences of Native Americans over time is incredible. I see more and more everyday it seems. I see potential movies, both docs and narratives everywhere. Even though [The Thick Dark Fog] was a difficult shoot, it has to be separated from the perfect hospitality Walter and Jane offered on all my trips to South Dakota. The opportunity to spend so much time in a place such as Wounded Knee was invaluable.

CR: What was your favorite moment while making The Thick Dark Fog?

RV: Probably my favorite moment in the film is when Walter is visiting the school and he says at the end of the story about his mother visiting him "...I'm not gonna forget anymore," and takes what I think is a very loaded, very powerful emotional pause. In fact, at one time, I was going to name the film I'm Not Gonna Forget Anymore. I love that moment of taking a very personal and vulnerable stand.

CR: What projects do you have coming up?

RV: I'm in early development of two native themed docs and one about a childhood hero of mine.

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For more information on The Thick Dark Fog, don't miss the film's website and Facebook page, and Cante Sica's Facebook page as the project continues to develop. You can watch Testimony: The Maria Guardado Story here. Contact Randy for more info on both films and his upcoming work via The Thick Dark Fog contact page.

My thanks again to Randy!

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