Pine Ridge: Venice Review

"Pine Ridge"
A familiar style of magic-hour ethnography yields some entrancing and unflinching visions of American margins.

Danish documentarist Anna Eborn's debut, premiering out of competition at Venice, explores a Native American reservation in South Dakota.

It's impossible to make a film in the 'Badlands' of South Dakota without somehow invoking Terrence Malick, whose classic 1973 debut was named for the area and continues to influence so many young directors four decades later. And while Danish documentarist Anna Eborn's Pine Ridge shows unfamiliar sides of the territory by examining daily realities on a Lakota reservation, her approach pays dutiful homage to Malick's trademark brand of dusty-sunlight lyricism.

Consistently and sometimes incongruously slick in its presentation of lives often weighed down by financial woes, ennui and despair, this is a quietly absorbing debut that will find favor with programmers at non-fiction festivals. A similar example of magic-hour, poetically-tinged social observation, Alma Har'el's Bombay Beach (2011), did manage to break out of the festival circuit to score art house distribution in the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere. But Pine Ridge, a slightly grittier portrait of the American hinterland, might have to settle for more limited exposure.

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Eborn's perspective shifts fluently from individual to individual over the course of her briskly self-edited running-time of 80 minutes, but if there's a principal protagonist on view it's a handsome youth named Kassel Sky Little. The charismatic Kassel, who looks about 20 and bears a passing resemblance to Joseph Gordon-Levitt from certain angles, is seen larking around in a muddy pond with his buddies before later buckling down to the more serious business of rodeo riding in the picture's most lively sequences.

Eborn is clearly fascinated by these images of pure, undiluted Americana, and she includes footage of the Wounded Knee monument and museum, marking traumatic events in the history of the Lakota peoples -- and most recently the 1973 siege, which helped propel Native American issues into the Civil Rights spotlight. Avoiding overt editorializing, Eborn examines the legacy of Wounded Knee in a fruitfully oblique fashion, making it clear that 40 years after the siege Native Americans are still getting a rough deal. Her wandering encompass dwellings at the lower end of the income bracket in what is evidently a cash-strapped community, one from which the younger members are keen to flee -- as is made clear in the profanity-laced -- and superfluously subtitled -- monologue which kicks off the movie on an arrestingly angry note (the reservation is blasted as "a sh-tty-ass f--kin' spot to live in" by the unidentified speaker.)

For the most part the film operates according to well-established "fly on the wall" principles with the participants carrying on as though the camera crew isn't present. One exception is young mother Cassie, who addresses the camera with candid first-person testimony about her situation. The 'detachment' of Eborn and her crew pays dividends in terms of unfussy observational access to people and places most of us would never have any hope of experiencing for real. But it's taken a step too far in an extremely uncomfortable sequence in which a toddler, left 'alone' with some kittens, hits one of them with a toothbrush using sufficient force to potentially cause permanent damage to the defenseless critter. Eborn and crew's reluctance to intervene here is baffling -- likewise the sequence's inclusion in the finished work.

Further editing would also have benefited a section showing a middle-class white adult and various youths discharging firearms in a secluded spot, a segment that trundles on long after its point has been made. This episode does feature one of several fine songs by Barbara Keith, a rendition of the Bob Dylan's All Along the Watchtower (stirring further memories of Bombay Beach, which featured a Dylan-dominated soundtrack.) The Keith tracks are skillfully integrated into an original score by Chris Douglas that emphasizes the downbeat moodiness of a project whose attention to detail extends to the strikingly minimalist yellow-on-blue typography deployed during the opening and closing credits.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of competition)
Production company: Adomeit Film
Director / Screenwriter / Editor: Anna Eborn
Producers: Katja Adomeit
Director of photography: Nadim Carlsen
Music: Chris Douglas
Sales: Adomeit Film, Copenhagen
No MPAA rating, 80 minutes