Three of this year's Oscar hopefuls — 'St. Louis Superman,' 'Fast Horse' and 'Water Warriors' — focus on timely, weighty topics: "We weren't just here to do a puff piece."
Bruce Franks Jr., 35, doesn't need a cape to prove he's a superhero in St. Louis. "You can't walk down the street without people approaching him — wanting to talk to him, celebrate him, come to him with their problems," says Smriti Mundhra, 39, who co-directed St. Louis Superman with film school classmate Sami Khan, 40.
The doc, which is MTV Documentary Films' first acquisition, follows the activist, battle rapper and state representative as he tries to pass a bill on the House floor that would effectively declare youth violence a public health epidemic, provide critical funding to address the root causes of gun violence and mark June 7 as Christopher Harris Day in honor of his brother, who was killed at just 9 years old.
"We weren't just here to do a puff piece, or some sort of bullshit thing about how great it is to uplift this community. We were going to tell a story that was his story, warts and all," Khan says.
"The most true statement in the film is, 'The system wasn't built for us.' Whether you think about Bruce or Ilhan Omar or Sharice Davids, these newly elected officials being celebrated for breaking into a system that wasn't built for us, it's incredibly affirming," adds Mundhra. "But we have to think about how we can support and protect these people, who are tapping into so much personal pain, carrying open wounds and exposing themselves to violence and hatred to make a better world for all of us."
By the end of the film, Franks' bill is indeed passed and a statue is unveiled in honor of his brother in a moving ceremony. As the credits reveal, he resigned from politics after three years to focus on his own mental health, after suffering severe anxiety attacks and depression. (He has attended more than 170 funerals.)
"It's important to understand how important your mental health is," Franks tells THR. "Being a real leader isn't always about leading, but about knowing when to take a step back and letting someone else lead."
These days Franks is battle rapping full time. Through it, he feels that his activism can inspire more than politics. "I always felt like I was battle rapping when I spoke on the floor anyway," he says. "If one million people are going to watch me battle and are going to watch this on YouTube, then I can say something that's going to stick with them. And that's going to light a fire up under them to do something."
Director Alexandra Lazarowich had a distinct reference point in mind for Fast Horse, her 13-minute doc following Allison Red Crow, Cody Big Tobacco and the Old Sun Indian relay race team in Blackfoot country.
"I emailed my editor, Sarah Taylor, very early on, like, 'I'm going for Creed,' and she got it right away," the Cree filmmaker tells THR from Canada, where she's in production on CBC series Still Standing. "Like all of the Rocky movies, it's about building a hero and highlighting the work that goes into doing what you're going to be really good at. We don't really have movies like that as indigenous people."
Lazarowich grew up going to rodeos with her family in Northern Alberta, where her kookum ("grandmother" in Cree) would be gambling on the side, she recalled. So when producer Niobe Thompson phoned to ask if she wanted to watch the Old Sun team race in the first Indian Relay in the history of the prestigious Calgary Stampede, Lazarowich, 33, hopped in her car and drove 14 straight hours from Saskatchewan to make it in time.
"It was incredible because at that moment we were unsure whether we'd even make the film. It was a test to see how we could do it," says Lazarowich, who picked up the Sundance special jury award for directing after the film screened on opening night.
"But I was standing with our camera operator in front of 75,000 people and they were cheering so loud for these young indigenous men riding these horses bareback that my chest was vibrating," she says. "I'd never seen that before in my entire life. I thought, 'Oh my God, I have to make this fucking film.' "
Crafting films centered on indigenous stories is paramount to Lazarowich, who wants to give her nieces and nephews role models like Cody to emulate. "A lot of films made about indigenous people are incredibly sad, because we face tremendous issues like poverty, suicide, poor housing and water, environmental hardship. And those films are great," she says. "But I wasn't seeing films that give hope to a generation of kids growing up right now."
The need to represent the community was, she thinks, the key factor in Allison and Cody's agreeing to be part of the film in the first place. "Every time we get into a festival, I ask if they want to come. And they always say, 'Alex, we have to train the horses and we're racing that weekend,' " she says. "But I think they understood fundamentally the importance of what they were doing and why it needed to be captured."
The extreme sport has been passed down from generation to generation, but in recent years a huge boom in Indian Relay's popularity has emerged, with teams showing up from not only the Blackfoot community, but from the Cree community, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Even followers of the film's Facebook page, which Lazarowich herself runs, clamor to find out where the next race is going to be.
"A lot more young people have become very, very interested and want to learn more about the sport and actually want to participate, which I think is so badass."
Michael Premo had been monitoring water struggles in indigenous communities and efforts to protect natural resources around North America for a while when he learned about the water crisis bubbling in the Canadian province of New Brunswick.
Energy company SWN Resources had plans to conduct hydraulic fracturing in the area, which has devastating effects on natural resources. So, the community banded together in 2013 to elect a new government and set an indefinite moratorium on fracking that still holds today. Premo captured the movement in his doc Water Warriors.
“We all know that we’re different. But we can either wallow in our differences, or we can celebrate our similarities and what we share,” says Premo, 36. “That’s how these regular working people had such an impact.”
The population is a multicultural mix made up of the indigenous Mi’kmoq Elsipogtog First Nation, French-speaking Acadians and white, English-speaking families. “When you’re talking about that part of the world, these communities have been at odds with each other for 400 years, really,” he says.
They did, however, have one thing in common: “The land is so tied up into their cultures,” Premo says. “It’s how they relate to their children, how they spend their leisure time, how they survive.”
These “water warriors” could be found in all areas of the fight, from protesting to helping with child care. “There were retired schoolteachers who weren’t going to stand in the middle of the road, but they’d make food and bring it to people who were up all night in the blockade,” Premo recalls.
Driving 20 hours up from New York, Premo and his team witnessed a movement firsthand, which was made without the help of formal advocacy organizations or NGOs. “Thinking about all these conversations around environmental change that are happening, the problem can feel absolutely insurmountable,” he says. “But I was so surprised by this group of people who were able to come up with a solution and were actually successful at it.”
This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.