Director Tries to Balance Native American Concerns in an Interview, Michael Apted Explains His Approach to Filming the Mystery-Thriller 'Thunderheart'

Article excerpt

IN the old Hollywood, native Americans were portrayed as noble or ferocious savages, but almost never as fully developed human beings. In recent years, movies about native Americans have been few: The funny, bright little picture "Powwow Highway" garnered less notice than it deserved, and "Dances with Wolves" was, after all, a 19th-century plains romance. Contemporary Indians get short shrift. So the appearance of a mass entertainment like the mystery-thriller "Thunderheart" is welcomed by many audiences - including some Indian viewers.

It is a Hollywood movie, no mistake, and the viewer is free to take issue with the whole formulaic constructs of Hollywood film.

Inspiration for the story was taken from incidents at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota during the mid 1970s. The story places young FBI agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), who is part Indian and ashamed of his heritage, in the position of having to find himself as well as solve the crime. Sent to investigate a murder, he discovers that the reservation is a hotbed of unrest with a corrupt tribal council, FBI-instigated exploitation of natural resources, and persecution of Indian activists.

Michael Apted came to make "Thunderheart" while directing a serious documentary called "Incident at Oglala" for Robert Redford. Mr. Redford's film, which opened in New York last week, attempts to shed light on what Indian activists and a judge say was an unfair trial in the case of Leonard Peltier, a native American who is serving two life sentences connected to the deaths of two FBI agents at Pine Ridge in 1975.

Intensely interested in native American issues, Mr. Apted liked the "Thunderheart" script and the strong relationships between the characters.

The events were complicated, Apted explained in a telephone interview, and he had to try to be honorable to the events while, at the same time, making them understandable. He found the political storytelling as well as the tribal religious element quite difficult to film honestly.

All during the shooting, Apted had to earn cooperation on the reservation. Of major concern to tribal elders was the film's treatment of religious rituals. Then, too, some families were pretty hostile to the politics of the film, he says. So he had to tread carefully. He kept the tribal council abreast of every day's shoot. The council also insisted that the reservation be portrayed honestly - neither more poverty-stricken than it really is, nor less. …