Believe Media, led by CEO and executive producer Liz Silver, announces today festival premieres for documentary short film, Above Boy. The film follows the Chipps family, members of the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and is directed by Sebastian Funke, Jan Vogel and Lucy Martens. Wednesday, February 23rd the film will make its world premiere at The Wilma in Missoula, Montana as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and joins a selection of twelve festival films competing for ‘Best Short.’
Above Boy spotlights the spiritual foundation of Godfrey “Mikal Okshila (Above Boy)” Benjamin Chipps, a fourth-generation descendant of Horn Chipp – the Medicine Man for legendary Indian chief, Crazy Horse, and takes a deep dive into the modern realities of the reservation through the experiences of his wife (Beverly Red Elk), sons and daughters.
“Our way of life is being forgotten and that’s not right,” comments Opijeta (Opi), Godfrey’s son. “Not everything is perfect, but we stick together and we survive.”
The film is set over two-year period in Wanblee, South Dakota, the heart of the incredibly beautiful Badlands, but is also inhospitable and remote. With one of the highest unemployment rates, and the lowest per capita income in the US, those who leave for a better life paradoxically still often return, as the life outside the reservation is faced with racism, loneliness and separation.
“Pine Ridge is like a moon scape – freezing in the winter, boiling summer,” notes Funke. “Most surrender to this harsh environment to keep their families intact – forgetting their traditional lifestyle and ceremonies as they try to assimilate into American culture.”
A poignant and standout moment of the film is the sequence of “Rez Life” an original song written and performed by Opi. The rap song catalogues Opi’s painful experiences on the reservation and his transition to becoming a dad. The track is now available on SoundCloud and YouTube.
The catalyst for this project grew from the personal and spiritual quest that captivated Vogel in 2012. During a spiritual sojourn, Vogel attended an Inipi (purification ceremony/sweat lodge) in Arizona led by an early apprentice of Godfrey. Friends of Godfrey encouraged Vogel to meet Godfrey himself to experience one of his healing ceremonies and gain an honest understanding of modern life on the reservation. From there, Vogel was invited to Wanblee where he participated in a four day stretch of healing ceremonies for Godfrey.
“Godfrey and I talked about my interest in making a film about the reservation and he got the concept immediately,” reflects Vogel. “In the seventies, he began traveling outside the reservation to teach about Lakota spiritual healings because he wanted their traditions to survive, but life circumstances derailed him for a long time and felt he needed to revisit that mission with a film.”
In 2013, Vogel pitched the film to Believe Media executive producers Luke Thornton and Liz Silver. Aligned with their company ethos to create beauty and humanity in every pursuit, Thornton and Silver joined the filmmakers on the reservation for an initiation ceremony in the sweat lodge.
“Our work on Above Boy started many years ago and has lasted many years with our relationships with the Chipps family enduring beyond the film,” notes Silver. “Beverly and Godfrey invited us into their lives with warm generosity and pure vulnerability; we are forever grateful to have been welcomed into their world and entrusted to tell this story to a community outside their own.”
As a producer, Godfrey not only led the film crew throughout the process, he only remained committed if the filmmakers agreed to tell the story based on where the spirits led him. While this guided method made for an interesting and complex filming schedule for the filmmakers, the exposure ultimately helped reflect the res reality.
“Every documentary is a complete initiation,” says Martens. “If you work with Indigenous communities, you work the way they work and can’t come with your set of ideas because you are not aligned with their spirit. There is so much ancient wisdom, and unity, if we listen.”
“In many ways it led to the film turning out different from how we envisioned,” shares Funke. “Living there and being with them, just the time spent there to build up trust naturally led us there to do it with a human aspect and this personal story of this family, not just the broad picture of Godfrey being this medicine man.”
“Somethings happened, somethings didn’t happen – he (Godfrey) wanted us to experience what he talks about and not allow us to only pick the pieces we want,” adds Vogel.
Tragically, Godfrey did not survive the completion of the documentary process. It was his intention the film be finished and shared to educate the younger Lakota generations.
Discovered in filming the Chipps family is how strong faith, love, and hope can be, but also how deep despair, loneliness, and inequitable circumstances can keep the cycle of poverty alive. With little chance of employment or decent education, coupled with the highest levels of substance abuse, suicide, violence and teenage pregnancy, the ideals of keeping spirituality and traditions of the Oglala Lakota Sioux are greatly challenged.
“I’m glad we got my dad’s story out,” adds Opi. “Not a whole lot of people in our community will talk, but there is more to know about our family and our people. The story isn’t over.”
The film will screen in-person at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival February 23rd and 24th and online February 21st through March 3rd. The 2022 Black Hills Film Festival will also host screenings of the film later this spring. Visit aboveboy.com for ongoing updates.