WGBH plans to bring Native history to life

In the second part of realscreen's interview with WGBH in anticipation of its April 2009 five-part miniseries, We Shall Remain, more was revealed about the origins of the project and how 'American Experience' will present Native history.
October 1, 2008

In the second part of realscreen‘s interview with WGBH in anticipation of its April 2009 five-part miniseries, We Shall Remain, more was revealed about the origins of the project and how ‘American Experience’ will present Native history.

‘At one time we had been thinking of doing a history of the United States and doing the research,’ says We Shall Remain EP Sharon Grimberg. ‘We found you can’t understand the history of the United States without understanding the Native experience.’

Grimberg says they decided to tell these stories about five years ago, and were encouraged when they realized no documentaries had told those tales in a comprehensive way. The films will begin with the first Thanksgiving in 1621, between Pilgrims and the Wampanoags and follows their peaceful co-existence to the violence that erupted half a decade later.

Episode two follows the Shawnee leader Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa and their spiritual revival moment and formation of a pan-Indian political and military alliance. The third doc focuses specifically on the Cherokee Nation’s resilience in the southeast, and the fourth on the controversial nature of Geronimo.

Lastly is the film on the 1973 siege of Wounded Knee. This archival-driven film benefits from the siege being one of the most photographed events of the 1970s, as well as having strong interviews with people who were there.

Because the first three films in the series are set from a period captured in few photographs or paintings, filmmakers needed feature experience to add to the documentary-style demanded for an ‘American Experience’ series. A Native filmmaker was paired with non-native producers with strong documentary backgrounds. The pairings include Cheyenne/Arapaho feature director, Chris Eyre with documentary producer/director Ric Burns, and White Mountain Apache/Navajo producer/director Dustinn Craig with producer/director Sarah Colt. For that latter pairing, ‘I think the film would have been very different if only one or the other had made it,’ says Grimberg.

Although the first three films in the series contain large portions of docudrama and the last two films feature photography and archival footage, a unifying thread is tied through all five films. All of the interviews are shot in the same way, they have the same composer, and the maps are done by the same person, so they all have the same look and feel, says Grimberg. The filmmakers were also given a lot of latitude, so they are all heavily auteured films.

Currently only three of the five films have been completed. The episodes on Tecumseh, Geronimo, and Wounded Knee are all finished. The fourth film, Trail of Tears, is in the fine cut stage and in post-production right now. WGBH is in the early stages of editing the first film, After the Mayflower (w/t).

Even in the early stages, Grimberg anticipates the effects of the completed projected. ‘I hope it creates a national conversation about our shared past and a realization that Native Americans and non-native people’s paths are very much intertwined and difficult to separate,’ she says. ‘I hope people are engaged around this history.’

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.