A lyrical, haunting account of loss of community and cultural identity, Juan Carlos Peinado’s “Waterbuster” evocatively melds personal and tribal history. Pic’s catalog of broken treaties and blatant exploitation registers as unfortunately all too familiar. But Peinado’s dense tapestry of photographs, drawings, government films, cartoons and homemovies vividly reimagines the fabled towns and rich bottomland from which the North Dakota Indians were evicted by the damming of the Missouri River. Intriguing docu could build enough momentum on the fest circuit to insure ancillary interest.
Returning to his ancestral homeland to place a headstone on his grandmother’s grave, the filmmaker conjures a strong sense of identification with the bend in the river that once housed seven towns now under the waters of Lake Sakajawea, an ironic name that belies the water’s non-native origin. Though the story of tribes’ dispossession from their ancestral lands plays as heartbreaking in its injustice, the manner of its telling and the self-possession of its tellers plant an impression of strength and persistence.
Unlike most tribes resettled or left on land judged worthless, the members of the Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara Nation of the Fort Berthold Reservation remained self-sufficient, conserving their language and customs well into the 1950s, running livestock, cultivating fertile fields and living in towns that outwardly looked very much the same as those of their Anglo counterparts.
Three consecutive catastrophic floods along the Missouri River in the 1940s led the Army Corps of Engineers to propose a series of dams. Historians and tribal chiefs explain that the Garrison Dam could have been built elsewhere without illegally abrogating government treaties. As the tale of congressional arrogance and shady dealings unfolds, Peinado intercuts a contemporaneous 16mm public service film that spouts the official line: that “Mr. Gregg,” the average farmer, is scrupulously guaranteed fair compensation for his land.
The relocation of 4,000 people and the loss of some 156,000 acres proved devastating, sounding the death knell of tribal life as members were scattered to the four winds. Yet when the filmmaker and his relatives are drawn back to the land and to the sense of belonging it imparts, it’s clear that their spiritual belief in who they are remains strong. It’s also noted that the lake is beginning to silt up, ruining the tourist trade.
Peinado uses a small screen-within-a-screen to counterpoint the past — via homemovies, government propaganda reels or family photographs, with the large-screen present.
Serene DV lensing is impressive, as is the pic’s hypnotic Amerind score. Pic is titled after the clan of the director’s mother.