Film Review: A Different American Dream

A shallow, context-free documentary about the effects of North Dakota oil drilling on Native American communities.
Specialty Releases

With tensions still high over the Dakota Access Pipeline, A Different American Dream’s theatrical timing couldn’t be better. Alas, despite a fortuitously scheduled debut, Simon Brook and Jane Wells’ film is a thoroughly shallow look at the dynamics of western North Dakota, where (unnamed) oil companies drill for profits, much to the chagrin of a few of the region’s Native Americans. Amounting to a ten-minute short expanded into a repetitive and paper-thin feature, this documentary does little more than afford opportunities for a handful of local speakers to lament the alleged pollution and ruin wrought by the petroleum industry, as well as the more general historical mistreatment of Native Americans—important topics which are addressed in the most unsubstantiated and aimless manner imaginable.

A Different American Dream initially concerns itself with the oil drilling taking place throughout western North Dakota, which family-medicine physician Dr. Biron Baker and “Tribal Environmental Leader” Edmund Baker view as a crime against both Native Americans and Mother Nature, because it’s resulted in tainted soil and water sources. That such pollution has taken place, however, remains up for debate, since no specifics are actually provided by directors Brook and Wells. Instead, the filmmakers just take their speakers at their word (only a single competing voice is briefly heard), regardless of the fact that no specific environmental calamity seems to have befallen the province.

According to the film’s subjects, the larger crime perpetrated by these conglomerates is the theft and defilement of their ancestral homeland—which, they none-too-subtly imply, should have remained in their control and untouched by contemporary society, simply because it was inhabited by their predecessors. Amidst frequent criticism of “money” (which is apparently far less important than a spiritual bond with the land, sea and sky), A Different American Dream’s interviewees suggest that what’s truly gone wrong in western North Dakota—which they themselves admit has nothing to offer anyone other than work with oil or cattle—is that their birthplace has become useful only as an epicenter for oil drilling; in every other respect, it’s a lovely but largely barren and inhospitable area that affords few employment or entertainment options.

After a lot of redundant talk about how oil drilling has sullied ponds and rivers, blackened grass fields, and led to potential cancer threats (the last of which is stated without a shred of supporting evidence), A Different American Dream loses track of even its nominal point, allowing its featured speakers to segue into making an overarching case about Native Americans’ centuries-long oppression and marginalization by the government. And as with everything else uttered here, such criticisms are raised at random and left unexamined. Some of the opinions expressed here seem ripe for complex consideration—for example, doesn’t modernity naturally entail ever-changing environments and socioeconomic paradigms? Rather than digging into the larger issues at play, however, Brook and Wells’ film merely opts to be a platform for a few individuals’ context-free grievances, interspersed with landscape shots set to alternately ominous and melancholy music that strives, in vain, to imbue the proceedings with import.

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