'100 Years': Film Review

Courtesy of Fire in the Belly Productions
An eye-opening, if not especially cinematic, tribute to a crusader for justice.

An unlikely hero fights for Native Americans who've been cheated out of billions of dollars.

While Americans continue to struggle with the repercussions of one of this nation's Original Sins — slavery, and the inequalities that persist long after Abolition — another has been easier to ignore: With a huge percentage of Native Americans living isolated from the rest of the country on reservations, institutional mistreatment of them isn't a staple of the daily news. Melinda Janko's 100 Years focuses on one especially outrageous failure of U.S. policy, showing the fight over billions of dollars owed for oil drilled on reservations. With its hero, the late Elouise Cobell, announced this week as a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, it will be easier to attract attention to special bookings of this informative documentary.

Ironically, given that most Native American-related news coverage lately has to do with opposition to an oil pipeline, this story features tribes eager to benefit from fossil-fuel extraction. At issue is the implementation of century-old federal policies in which the federal government, while acknowledging Native Americans' rights to their land, made itself trustee of financial matters it presumed they were incompetent to handle themselves.

Janko spends some time showing just how untrustworthy these trustees were when it came to money produced from oil leases. We meet property owners who, for instance, might be paid an $89 royalty on $6,000 worth of oil, or who might have four productive wells on their land but can't afford running water. We're told that the government accepted whatever oil companies said they owed, and that doubtful property owners had no way of verifying the number of barrels pumped up from their backyards. A quick primer on earlier failures of the Bureau of Indian Affairs shows that this state of affairs is no anomaly.

We meet Cobell, a banker and treasurer of Montana's Blackfoot tribe, who was elated at the election of Bill Clinton, believing his new administration would address the injustice she saw. It didn't, and in 1996 she filed what became a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit.

Janko follows the infuriating details of this case, watching as politicians try (quite effectively) to slow it down and as investigators witness the disregard oil producers had for the people they owed so much money to: A seemingly typical operation stored what records it kept in a decaying heap, piled in a barn alongside spare tires and mulch.

Cobell's story is one of remarkable persistence, but 100 Years doesn't offer the kind of personal connections a more polished documentary might. With any luck, Hollywood will take note and someday present an Erin Brockovich-like adaptation of this tale, drawing more casual moviegoers into this ire-stoking story — and, incidentally, offering a rare opportunity for some Native American actress out there.

Venue: Cinema Village
Production company: Fire in the Belly Productions
Director-screenwriter: Melinda Janko
Producers: Melinda Janko, Michele Ohayon
Executive producers: Alan C. Blomquist, Dea Shandera, Lekha Singh
Director of photography: Jim Orr
Editors: Edgar Burcksen, Patrick McMahon
Composer: Nicholas Pike

Not rated, 75 minutes

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