"Incident at Oglala" is an even-handed cry of outrage, a coolly passionate documentary that focuses a piercing ray of light on an American scandal. Too sophisticated to lay claim to absolute truth, it still lays bare a situation so disheartening it makes you almost weep for our government, and, by implication, ourselves.
Directed by Michael Apted and focusing on the events leading up to the 1977 conviction of American Indian activist Leonard Peltier for the murders of two FBI agents, this film makes you understand why that event has been called (by Peter Matthiessen) "the most significant murder trial in this country since Sacco and Vanzetti."
For those who've vaguely heard of the controversy, and perhaps wondered why someone like Robert Redford--who executive produced and narrated here--would be moved enough to get involved, "Incident at Oglala" (at the AMC Century 14) lays it all out in clear and disquieting detail.
Partly because its subject matter remains incendiary, this was not an easy film to make. The American Indian leaders were mistrustful, the FBI not forthcoming, the government made its attorneys available only at the last minute, and it took six months of negotiations--and press credentials obtained from the BBC--before Peltier, the focus of the film and imprisoned in Leavenworth until 2035, was able to be interviewed.
More than that, Apted, who also directed a fiction feature, the current "Thunderheart," based very loosely on these events, also had to weather a challenge from Oliver Stone and Matthiessen--the author of "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse," the key book on the story--who are attempting to make their own film about the Peltier case.
But Redford, producer Arthur Chobanian and Apted, whose recent "35 Up" is the latest in a series of documentaries he made about growing up in England, persevered and, combining talking heads with minimal use of "A Thin Blue Line"-type re-creation, turned out this very thoughtful and involving look at a complex, disturbing situation.
The incident in question took place on June 26, 1975, when two newly assigned FBI agents, apparently looking for someone wanted for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots, turned up a dirt road to the Jumping Bull campsite on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. They never came out alive. Almost immediately involved in an intense fire fight with a group of American Indian activists, they were apparently killed, execution style, at close range.
The first thing "Oglala" sets out to do is establish the critical and easily overlooked context for the shooting. Pine Ridge was a terribly poor reservation, a grim pocket of hopelessness and despair. And, for months before the incident, the Lakota Sioux who lived there had been involved in what was in effect an ugly and brutal civil war between more traditional elements and the pro-government forces who ran the reservation.
The result was what the film characterizes as the highest murder rate in the country, with more violent deaths recorded in this small enclave than in the rest of South Dakota combined, not to mention a situation where residents had good reason to assume than any strangers who showed up were there with mayhem on their minds.
Once the killings were committed, the FBI arrived in force, 350 agents strong, determined to solve the case with the code name "Resmurs." The bureau immediately focused on members of the militant American Indian Movement, or AIM, who had led a celebrated 71-day takeover of the reservation's Wounded Knee memorial site two years earlier. Three AIM members who had been at Jumping Bull--Darrelle Dino Butler, Bob Robideau and Leonard Peltier--were accused of the shooting.
Because Peltier, fearing he could not get a fair trial, initially left the country, Butler and Robideau were tried separately and first. The story of these two trials is the focus of the PG-rated "Oglala" and it is a sad tale indeed. The questionable shenanigans the FBI apparently went through to first get Peltier back from Canada and then convict him are portrayed as so reprehensible, so close to police state methods, that finally one wonders not at the man's precipitant flight but why his co-defendants didn't take off along with him.
Though a heavily disguised "Mr. X" has recently appeared and been interviewed on "60 Minutes" claiming to be the killer of the FBI men, "Incident at Oglala" very definitely shies away from trying to figure out who the murderer was. Its concern, the idea that got Redford initially interested in the case a dozen years ago, is rather the conviction that an awful injustice was done Peltier by a government that treated him with chicanery and contempt. It is difficult to watch this very strong film and not wholeheartedly agree.
'Incident at Oglala'
A Spanish Fork Motion Picture Co. production, released by Mirimax Pictures. Director Michael Apted. Producer Arthur Chobanian. Executive producer Robert Redford. Associate producer Chip Selby. Narrated by Robert Redford. Cinematographer Maryse Alberti. Editor Susanne Rostock. Music consultants John Trudell & Jackson Browne. Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes.