In the first scenes of the new film “Woman Walks Ahead,” widow Catherine Weldon (played by Jessica Chastain) sheds her corseted life as a Brooklyn housewife and buys a one-way train ticket to the Great Plains.
She’s following her dream to paint a portrait of the Native American chief Sitting Bull (Michael Greyeyes), at a time when the Sioux tribes are under pressure and invasion from the U.S. government to surrender their land and ways of life.
“She went to North Dakota in 1889, which is about 30 years before women had the right to vote, so women were seen as property,” Chastain told MarketWatch about her character, based on the real-life historical figure. “Her going to North Dakota to meet Sitting Bull is an act of revolution.”
The film, directed by Susanna White from a screenplay by Steven Knight, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday. It follows Catherine as she navigates her harsh new environment of scorching sun and parched land — and disapproving whites, who view her association with Sitting Bull as incitement. White’s camera trains our eye on both the sweeping plains, and the land’s smallest, crawling insects. The land, with its sounds and spirits, becomes a character in the film.
“It was there before any of us came into the world, it’ll be there after we pass through it,” White said. “None of us can own the land. As Sitting Bull says, you think you can own the land? Do you want to buy the sky as well?”
Chastain said much of her character work came from immersing in the new environment as an observer, just like her character. “I live in New York, I’m so detached from the land,” she said. “Working in New Mexico, for me that was a lot of my character work — the land, the sky, the wind storms. The sand that would hit us in the face. I really wanted to be very open, as close to nature as I could.”
While filming, the production happened to coincide with protests at the Standing Rock reservation over the Dakota Access Pipeline, and Native American members of the film crew had family or friends there. The underground pipeline project by Energy Transfer Partners ETP, +1.16% and Dakota Access LLC led to a high-profile movement opposing its construction, with Sioux leaders citing threats to their access to clean water and the area’s burial grounds. Suddenly, the story of Sitting Bull’s struggle with the U.S. government took on new relevance.
“It was extraordinary how timely how it was,” White said. “It just made it feel very current, that even though these events happened over 100 years ago, the issues are exactly the same today. I’ve never believed in period drama being totally set in the past.”
Greyeyes said he approached playing the iconic figure of Sitting Bull in a human — rather than political — way. He was conscious of the perception of Sitting Bull to others. “It reflects the contemporary understanding of our world and politics, that Sitting Bull was an enemy of the state,” he said, drawing an analogy to the “Iraq’s Most Wanted” playing cards to help the military identify members of Saddam Hussein’s government.
“I was playing what at the time would have been considered a terrorist,” Greyeyes said. “I was really conscious of that because he was a hero to the people. In this case, the state is on the wrong side. That was a really important way in because of the counter-narratives.”
In the end, Chastain views her character Catherine, and Sitting Bull, as not so different. She hopes the film will create a sense of hope for audiences. “This is the story of two people who had no voice in a country that was being forged,” she said. “This deep love they had for each other, that created hope.”