When filmmaker Michelle Latimer arrived last spring at the Sacred Stone Camp in North Dakota to document opposition to the nearby construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, she was underwhelmed. Surveying the small group of Native American activists assembled in support of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, she thought, “I don’t know if I can make a film with this,” as she recalled to the audience during a postscreening panel of Sacred Water on 24 March at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.
So Latimer and reporter Sarain Fox set out to make a “small, quiet story” of protest, the first in an eight-part series from cable channel VICELAND on indigenous activism. They made supply runs with Ladonna Brave Bull Allard, who hosted the camp on her land in the hope of protecting local water supplies and sacred sites; they rode around the reservation with Bobbi Jean Three Legs, a young organizer who led youth relay runs in protest of the pipeline; and they interspersed these candid interviews with historical flashbacks that lend context to the struggle—from the Battle of the Little Bighorn to the legacy of abuse in government-funded Native American boarding schools.
The resulting film is highly stylized, peppered with slow-motion footage, and set to a dramatic soundtrack that fuses moving chants and hip-hop rhythms. But the most impactful moments are less engineered. The film ends as the organizers’ desperate social media calls for support are answered and new protesters pour into the camp.
It’s hard not to view the activists’ initial victory under the shadow of more recent events, including President Donald Trump’s January executive order that called for the review and speedy approval of the pipeline’s permits. But Sacred Water remains an impassioned look at a protest movement on the eve of its explosion into national awareness.