Cody Lucich Brings an Insider’s Perspective to “Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock”

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Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Cody Lucich.
Cody Lucich Brings an Insider’s Perspective to “Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock”

Cody Lucich’s first time in North Dakota is one he’ll never forget. It was August 2016, and he was in the state working on a film project when he heard about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. After wrapping up his project, he asked to be dropped off at the resistance camp. Almost immediately, he ran into some relatives and friends.

As an award-winning director, cinematographer, and editor, Cody—who is from the Maidu Tribe in Northern California—decided to put his camera skills to work. His intention was to release short, powerful, high-quality video clips on social media to help spread awareness of the movement opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline construction on Native American land. But more importantly, Cody wanted to stay and fight.

A film still from “Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock” by Cody Lucich, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Zen Lefort.

He managed to do both, with support from the Sundance Institute and The Redford Center.

“After watching some of my clips, they asked me to film a documentary,” says Cody. “I initially declined because it meant I would have to hold onto the footage, instead of releasing it immediately to help spread awareness.” But as the weeks went by, dozens of non-native filmmakers from around the world began to converge on the protest camp, causing Cody to reconsider.

“As the only Native American filmmaker out there, I felt a responsibility to tell the story from an insider’s perspective—to take back control of our narrative,” he says. “This is a film that can be looked back on in 100 years’ time, and I wanted to do my people proud.”

A film still from “Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock” by Cody Lucich, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Cody Lucich.

Cody stayed on at the main Oceti Sakowen Camp to simultaneously protest and shoot footage for seven months, capturing confrontations with police, TigerSwan private securities, the National Guard, and U.S. military, as well as filming camp customs and other moments using a hand-held Sony DSLR camera. The result is Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock, a documentary of the resistance told through the eyes of young Native American water protectors. It premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, and was cut entirely on Adobe Premiere Pro.

With a minimal budget and no camera stabilizer, Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock was filmed largely in slow motion, helping Cody achieve steadier shots. But these seemed like minor inconveniences compared to some of the other challenges Cody faced.

“Some of the water protectors I wanted to feature were the same people the feds were keeping tabs on from the air, so they didn’t necessarily want a camera following them around camp all day long,” says Cody, who was also on the receiving end of a mace canon, tear-gassed at least two dozen times, and shot with rubber bullets on several occasions. Getting his footage confiscated was another concern. “I stashed my hard drives in a hole I dug inside of my tipi, and covered it up with wood,” he says.

A film still from “Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock” by Cody Lucich, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Cody Lucich.

Cody shot so much footage that it took him over three months to watch it all. From there, he roughed out the main pillars of the story and created a timeline from the studio in his garage. With the clock ticking on the festival, it took approximately five months for Cody and his second editor, Elena Kovalenko, to put the film together. They would each work on individual sequences, and then import them into their respective Premiere Pro projects.

To further steady his shots, Cody made use of the Warp Stabilizer feature in Premiere Pro “on an hourly basis,” he laughs. He used the Tools panel in Premiere Pro to create the subtitles in one scene that was particularly hard to hear. Using the new Text tool, he marked interview sequences so that he could quickly scroll through what was being said—and where—when going through interviews because there was no time to transcribe.

“I never went to school to learn how to edit, so my approach is a little unconventional,” says Cody. “I don’t really go online that much to check out the fastest or best way to do something. I just like to figure it out on my own. I think there are multiple ways to do things in Premiere Pro. It really is like my playground.”

What premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival was a work in progress—Cody will now have the next three months to cut the film as he originally envisioned it and to incorporate additional footage donated to the project by some of the other non native filmmakers who wish to support the one native made film from Standing Rock.

“I think everyone who was there realized how important it is for Native Americans to regain control of their own storyline and history,” says Cody. “I hope my people can watch this and learn from it, what we did right, what we did wrong, and that we may respect the diversity of tactics and learn to work together if we are to achieve our goals.”

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