Incident at Oglala

Michael Apted's Incident at Oglala (l992) is an assiduous study into the case of imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, accused of murdering two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in 1975.

Robert Redford, who is the narrator and executive producer, had an obsession to make the film. Redford didn't want to make a Hollywood movie, criticizing Hollywood's tendency to adopt a fashionable cause–the environment one day, Indian rights the next–then drop it for another cause. Early one he decided his film should focus entirely on the fairness of the trial, not on the issue of guilt or innocence. Because the case remains murky, Redford initially wanted to make a feature film similar to the Japanese classic Rashomon, about the subjective nature of truth, but it didn't work.

Redford's interest in the case grew out of a meeting in the early 80's with Peter Matthiessen, whose book In the Spirit of Crazy Horse documented the Pine Ridge events. Redford had just finished Brubaker, a film about prison reform, and was told by Matthiessen that Peltier's life was in danger in jail. For Matthiessen, Peltier's conviction has been the most significant murder trial in this country since Sacco and Vanzetti.

Because the subject matter remains incendiary, Incident at Oglala was not an easy film to make. Indian leaders were mistrustful, the FBI was not forthcoming, government lawyers were only made available at the last minute. Six months of negotiations were required before Peltier could be interviewed. Apted also had to weather a challenge from Oliver Stone and Matthiessen, who were attempting to make their own film about the case.

Incident uses interviews and some of A Thin Blue Line type re-creations, to turn out a thoughtful, involving look at a complex and disturbing situation. The film first sets the context for the murders: Prior to the shootings, the Lakota Sioux had been locked in a civil war between traditional elements and pro-government forces that ran the reservation. But above all, Incident is a film about the American justice system and how this system deals with minorities.

Apted fictionalized the same story in his film Thunderheart, starring Val Kilmer, which came out in the same year. While the documenatry is more politically savvy and thoughtful than Thunderheart, though it doesn't match his 7-Up series in originality or execution. But the story's relevance carries the movie past its technical or directorial flaws. There's a lack of feel for the day-to-day life on the reservation. Apted retells the dry court case, retracing historical grounds without yielding new insights. And the coverage of the traditional-versus-modern schism in Native American society is rather sketchy.

The straightforward, meticulous strategy persuasively points to gaping holes in the case made against Peltier. The film tries to make sense of the case, and to consider the larger context in which the murders took place. The focus is always clear, centering on the conflict between progressive and traditional elements within the community.

Since 1977, the courts have rejected four appeals for a new trial for Peltier, and a fifth appeal is now under way. Judge Gerald W. Heaney of the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which affirmed the conviction, told “The National Law Journal” in 1990 that the decision “continues to trouble” him and that “the FBI had not followed the law in its investigation and it is obvious they haven't been responsive to the defendant's request for information.” At the same time, Thomas F. Jones, FBI's chief spokesman, said a jury of peers tried Peltier and that the US Supreme Court rejected arguments that he was denied a fair trial.