First Run Features // 2056 // 2008 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // August 27th, 2009
The Dann Sisters vs. the U.S. Government.
Far be it from me to gloss over the plight and marginalization of Native Americans over the last two hundred years, but with that disclaimer information out of the way, American Outrage is a short, one-sided, and flawed documentary, a film engorged with anger and visceral dislike for all in opposition to it that it fails to even begin to make a conclusive argument.
To my discomfort, American Outrage is also a film lauded by the Human Rights Watch, which makes me look like a serious jerk. Looks like it's back to The Hague with me.
Carrie and Mary Dann live in Nevada on Western Shoshone land, a multimillion-acre stretch of land that historically has been shared by both the United States and the Shoshone nation under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. For the Dann sisters, who have always lived a traditional life of Shoshone values, their conflict with the United States government came when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management tried to fine them for allowing their animals to graze on private property -- -U.S. government property, according to the BLM, but Shoshone land, according to the Dann sisters.
After having their livestock rounded up and confiscated repeatedly and prosecution by the feds, the Dann sisters began a legal battle in 1974 that continues to this day, attempting to assert their rightful use of the land. The duo has taken the issue to the local government, the state, the U.S. Supreme Court and even the United Nations. Critics ask: why has the United States government spent millions of dollars in taxpayer money attempting to prosecute and pursue two elderly grandmothers in the middle of a Nevada desert? The answer may lie beneath their feet, as the Shoshone land contains untapped natural resources.
American Outrage introduces us quickly to Carrie and Mary Dann, two feisty Western Shoshone sisters (grandmothers) who live in peace in the middle of nowhere in Nevada. The peace lasts all of three minutes, before we jump headlong into how they are being systematically harassed, abused, threatened, beaten, maligned, arrested, and fined repeatedly by the U.S. government, with orders coming straight from the White House, for no other reason than America hates the Shoshone people, and that they want to strip mine the entire world until the planet dies. This is only slightly an exaggeration of the argument put forth in this documentary. I'm no Republican, but I'd wager a guess this is a bit heavy handed. Not even Ted Nugent would make a statement like this. After all, then he'd have nowhere to hunt bunny rabbits -- but I digress.
It is an unfortunate tale to be sure, but American Outrage fails to observe even the most tenuous arguments of objective journalism or documentary filmmaking. This film makes Michael Moore look like a redneck Republican. With "common sense" alarms going off in my brain almost immediately, I set upon some quick reading and investigation on the subject. It seems the Shoshone sisters ran afoul of the Bureau of Land Management, the organization in charge of administering the lands traditionally held by the Shoshone people (recognized as such in a treaty document from 1863) after countless heads of horses and cattle began grazing off the Danns' private ranch without a permit. When informed that the sisters would need permits from the BLM to allow their animals to graze, the Dann clan refused -- Why would they need permits for their people's own land? -- and the entire chain of events soon spiraled out of control. Issues of Native American relations and subjugation in America aside, I've never met anyone, be they white, black, brown, or Amish who can get away with not filing paperwork. It is a recipe for disaster.
As the government begins to harass and pressure the Shoshone to conform to local and federal laws, the Dann sisters dig their heels into their ancestral dirt and fight back through legal litigation, petitions, protests, and resistance -- both passive and aggressive. Now decades later, the Dann sisters are still at it, refusing to accept any compromise but total surrender by the U.S. government, doubly so now that private mining corporations have begun excising surrounding lands. As it turns out, Shoshone land is rich with microscopic gold deposits. American Outrage heavily implies with a megaphone that the rousting of the Dann sisters is entirely motivated by greed and profit, but it's hard to justify this kind of sweeping accusation in a 50-minute documentary. Hoping to resolve the issue, the government even goes so far as to offer cash payment to the Shoshone people -- first twenty-five million, then more and more as the interest accrues, into the hundreds of millions -- but the Dann sisters refuse to accept surrender.
A one-sided documentary in scope, ninety-five percent of the footage in American Outrage is comprised of interview footage with Shoshone people, or with human rights activists working with the Shoshone people, or lawyers representing the Shoshone people, or long emotionally wrenching shots of empty plains set to melodramatic folk protest songs. About five percent is given to the credits, and what microscopic moments remain are comprised of tiny low-level bureaucrats from the U.S. government making vague statements of defense, before being cut away by vengeful editing. The film even goes so far as to show footage of Shoshone men and women getting into physical altercations with local law enforcement agents, then getting arrested for assaulting a federal officer, hollering and howling. This is not a good thing for anyone to be doing. I don't understand why American Outrage would assume this would garner sympathy for the Shoshone cause. Getting into fist fights with the police is a bad idea, full stop.
Believe me, I tried to be interested in the argument and in the subject matter, but cold logic and rational pragmatism kept bringing me back to a nagging realization that the Shoshone argument was inherently flawed. Try as the film might, the argument that a treaty signed almost one hundred fifty years ago should allow an entire group of people in Nevada to use sixty million acres of land in any way they wish, without any state or federal oversight is fantasy; this is never going to happen, not ever. American Outrage paints the Dann sisters as heroic fighters against an oppressive government that despises their way of life and wants to see them suffer, and also wants to murder the planet. It just fails the logic test. Not even George W. Bush's administration was that Dr. Evil-ish.
American Outrage is a film fueled entirely by outrage and indignation, of anger and resentment for the subjugation of two centuries of Shoshone people, but fails to acknowledge that the proposed solution of the U.S. government going away and not bothering them ever again is probably a bit far-fetched. In actuality, the inevitable solution, one the U.S. government and the Shoshone people both seem to agree to disagree on, is the complete conceptual overhaul of the right to acquisition, of mutual compromise and pragmatism. Rather than seriously examine this, it almost seems like both sides want the other to simply give up and go away. Well, good luck with that.
This DVD is a mess in terms of technical specs. Recorded on handheld cameras, the picture is grainy, washed-out, absent of any pleasing color tones, and full of digital distortion and compression artifacts. The less said about it the better. The audio is simple stereo, which does the job well enough, but the narrator (actress Mary Steenburgen) is balanced at a much higher level than the interviewees, so I found myself fiddling endlessly with the remote to equalize. The lack of subtitles didn't help in this regard.
Extras include some film notes by Human Rights Watch, a photo gallery, and a small short, "Crisis at Mt. Tenabo," discussing the plight of the Shoshone and their sacred burial site threatened by gold mining.
As a testament to the enduring plight of Native Americans, and to the Dann sisters, American Outrage is an admirable film, and I can understand the attraction of filmmakers to take on this project. Truthfully, it's hard not to feel sympathetic towards two elderly women trying to take on the entire U.S. government singlehandedly -- and certainly no one will argue that Native American rights and issues are not important and complex. Indeed, if they were simple, then they would be solved by now.
What bothers me most is that American Outrage never acts interested in opening a serious dialogue about the challenging legal, social, and cultural barriers that need to be overcome to unite the Shoshone and the U.S. government nearly as much as it seems interested in rousing people to the picket line. This is a short, inflammatory film, heavy on rhetoric and light on serious facts.
While it may seem unfashionable to trash a movie about human rights and Native American assertions to land ownership, American Outrage is a mediocre documentary that spends too much time pandering to emotional propaganda and not enough time discussing the root causes of the Shoshone plight and the greater sociological issue of Native American relations in America today. With a short running time and a dreadful technical presentation, American Outrage spends all its time tossing accusations and speculations out at everyone trying to make its argument, but fails to connect on a rational level.
I give points to the filmmakers for having their hearts in the right place, but for little else. The film is guilty, but I'm secretly rooting for the Dann sisters.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 2008 Minutes
Release Year: 2056
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Film Notes
* Official Site