This film thrusts you into a boat ride to Alcatraz. Yet, it isn't a prison drama. We're told in titles that it's September 2005 and several Lakota tribe members, all under 25 in age, are to swim from Alcatraz Island to the coast of San Francisco.
This documentary follows five of them for six days, as they prepare and train. It features interviews from the five participants, as they comment on their thoughts and feelings of this experience.
Director Nancy Iverson not only captures this experience on video but also is the organizer of the event and fellow participant. She screened the doc at the Ocean Film Festival, and while the movie boasts beautiful shots of the San Francisco Bay, adjacent to the Pacific blue, it's less about the bodies of water than it is about the bodies in the water.
As is evident, the five participants are not all together physically fit. As is expressed, the water is quite cold, and what's not initially known is the swim is nearly two miles and a near two-hour journey. The question that then rang in my head and then rang through half the movie is why. Why were these Native American youths swimming in a bay 1300 miles from their home?
The five youths are even asked that same question. You learn quickly that two of the youths are sons of Richard Iron Cloud, the first Lakota to make the swim several years ago under Dr. Iverson's nonprofit organization called Pathstar. One of Iron Cloud's sons, Philip, said he didn't know why he's doing this. It's a "family tradition," he said.
Yes, it's a Lakota family tradition for them, a Lakota tradition strangely started by a white woman, a white woman 1300 miles away but still very much connected to these impoverished Indians living in the Badlands of South Dakota. That woman, Dr. Iverson, was born in South Dakota, worked there as a pediatrician and saw the poor health of the Indians. Moved by past tragedies, Iverson is like Sandra Bullock's character in The Blind Side. No, she didn't take anyone into her home, but, as a doctor, it's almost as if she adopted them all as her de facto patients.
Since she swam the Bay herself recreationally, taking the Indians out of their element and into the water seemed natural. Her goal wasn't merely to get them physically active for those six days, but also to encourage healthier habits, especially in terms of eating, habits that the five youths could take from the Bay back to the Badlands.
Yet, of all the films playing at the Hearts and Minds Film Festival in Dover, Delaware, this one is perhaps the most amateurish in appearance. When the swim first happened, Iverson had not planned on making a film about it. Weather conditions threatened not only filming but the swim itself. Some crucial footage was even lost after the '05 swim was complete.
As such, there are moving moments that are missed. Iron Cloud's crossing of the finish line was uncontrollably lost. Iverson herself talks of being a sunrise swimmer, but actual video of this sunrise swimming is not to be realized on screen. Iverson does make good use of the video she did acquire. 21-year-old, Lakota-participant Kelly Waters speaks of her feelings while in the bay and listening to the animals around her. Iverson and her editor cover this testimonial beautifully, as Iverson entrances us with words, images, and the sound of the water that match perfectly and smoothly.
There are similar testimonials, as in those from Iron Cloud himself, that keep us entranced. It is in those moments that Iverson imbues the movie with a naturalistic spirit that connects the people with the place. There are brief historical asides that give the movie context and weight like references to the Battle of Wounded Knee and the occupation of Alcatraz Island. For those not familiar with these events, as well as the desperate poverty in the Pine Ridge Reservation, this film then becomes a doggy paddle you'll want to partake.
Three Stars out of Five
Unrated But Recommended for General Audiences
Running Time: 56 mins.