Stéphanie Gillard’s first documentary, "Une histoire de ballon," explored the meeting point of oral tradition and soccer culture in Cameroon. She made a second documentary in 2009 in coproduction with France Ô called "Les petits princes des sables" which garnered a special jury mention for documentary at the International Pan-African Film Festival of Cannes 2009 and won the second jury prize at the 2010 Caméra des champs film festival. "The Ride" is her first feature documentary. (Press materials)
"The Ride" will premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival on April 17.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
SG: Every winter, a group of Lakota riders goes on a 300-mile horse ride to commemorate the Wounded Knee Massacre. It is a time when Lakota gather and try to transmit their values to the younger generation. This journey is on a trail of tears but it is lived by the riders as a joyful moment and it makes a very compelling and uplifting story.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
SG: I have long been enthralled with poet and novelist Jim Harrison’s books. I wanted to make a documentary about him and especially about his vision of history in the USA and how the Indian genocide is the original sin of this country. One day, in 2009, I came across a book by French photographer Guy LeQuerrec for which Harrison had written the preface. Here, I discovered powerful images from this annual ride.
One photo depicted Sioux Riders braving blizzards on horseback, riding down a snow-covered hill, their faces covered with iced-over bandanas and ski masks. In another, the riders held feathered staffs high in the air as they rode along an icy road, followed by a long line of old Chevys. Another photo was of three riders’ silhouettes in a rear view mirror, which called to mind a photo by [American ethnologist and photographer] Edward Curtis.
When I saw the pictures, I immediately thought that I wanted to meet the people who were doing that. These pictures were really moving for me. It was like history was coming back today, just next to an interstate, in a country that never admits its own history. And it was miles away from the usual clichés I was used to hearing about Native Americans today.
In these pictures I saw pride — I saw people trying to get back their dignity and their culture, not even in a political sense, but above all, for themselves. I saw people remembering the death of their ancestors in order to live again. I saw something that I found important.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
SG: I want them to think: I want to meet these people! I have a different point-of-view on Native Americans. During the 15 days of the ride, they raise their heads high and are not in the miserable state in which they are depicted so often. [During the ride], they are no longer "victims," "alcoholics," "unemployed," "suicidal," or "people with no future and no culture."
Facing the cold, blizzards, snow, hunger, and the eyes of others, they have courage, solidarity and dignity. Galloping in the great plains, they become, for two weeks, if not warriors, at least members of a nation that once were free.
It is also important to tell this story to the world, because it shows a great example of humanity, generosity, courage and wisdom at a moment in time where, around the world, all those values tend to be forgotten.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
SG: The main difficulty was to be part of the group — to be accepted. It is normal — natives have been cheated so many times and I am a foreigner. It took me several years and I travelled to the reservations many times before being able to do that film this way.
Also [it was a challenge] to understand what this ride was really about. This ride is an organized mess! You don’t know who is going to come on the ride, you don’t know what will be the atmosphere, you don’t know the road the horses are going to take, you don’t know the road the drivers are going to take, you can’t plan if the gas station where you want to film will be open that day.
You don’t know what the weather will be. A blizzard would have changed the features of the ride, [and that] would have been complicated to shoot because [cinematographer] Martin de Chabaneix’s fingers would have probably frozen!
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
SG: The film was funded by the producers through [support funds] from the French National Center for Cinema and the Moving Image (CNC). We also got a few public funds in France.
W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?
SG: Usually I hear, "I don’t see your point-of-view." Well, my point of view is always to show the humanity of my characters. Of course, that is not the trend in documentary today.
Most of the time you have a concept, a plan representing the director’s point of view on the subject filmed, and when humanity arrives in the frame, it’s by chance and the director won’t change his concept to follow this humanity. I don’t believe in that. Documentary is about humans and my point-of-view is to show the humanity and to let my characters explain what others usually say about them.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
SG: The best advice was from [documentary filmmaker] Raymond Depardon when I met him two weeks before shooting my first film in Cameroon. He told me, "Don’t look for differences and don’t look for exoticism. Look for the same." I was going to Cameroon to film people watching the World Cup on TV, so it really gave me confidence in my choice!
As for the worst advice… I don’t listen to bad advice and I must have forgotten it!
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
SG: The same as for male directors: Hold on! Nobody is waiting for you to make a movie, the only one is you! So you need to be able to kick your ass yourself!
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
SG: "Zero Dark Thirty" by Kathryn Bigelow. It was a real surprise for me. I was not really interested by the subject, but she really hooked me to my seat with her direction. She really astonished me! But the reason I really liked the film is probably also because it is a film about women!