HotDocs 2018 Interview: WARRIOR WOMEN directors Christina D. King & Elizabeth Castle

Warrior Women – At #HotDocs25!

“WARRIOR WOMEN is the story of American Indian Movement leader, Madonna Thunder Hawk, who cultivated a rag-tag gang of activist children, including her daughter Marcy, into the “We Will Remember” Survival Group as a Native alternative to government-run boarding schools. Their deep involvement with The Movement fight for Native rights made them more comrades than mother-daughter. Today, with Marcy now a mother herself, both women are still at the forefront of Native issues, fighting against the environmental devastation of the Dakota Access Pipeline and for indigenous cultural values. Through their story, the film explores what it means to balance a movement with motherhood and how activist legacies are passed down from generation to generation in the face of a government that has continually met Native resistance with mass violence.” Directors Christina D. King & Elizabeth Castle on WARRIOR WOMEN which screens at #HotDocs25.


Great to have you here at HotDocs! Are you going to be attending your screenings?


Christina King: Absolutely! We are so honored to premiere this film in the traditional lands of the of the Haudonausonee, the Anishnaabe and the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit. This film is all about instigating radical self empowerment, so while the premiere is exciting, what we are really looking forward to is discussion with folks after. That’s the whole point for us. And we are HotDocs newbies! As a result, we tried really hard to clear our calendar so we can stay for the full run and have time for checking out Toronto!


Tell me more about your process of getting this documentary project together!


Elizabeth Castle: I’m a scholar activist and history professor by trade, so the seeds for this film were planted 20 years ago when I started conducting oral histories with women who had been active in the American Indian Movement. That is how I met Madonna Thunder Hawk. I have always felt academia has a rather parasitic relationship with indigenous communities and really didn’t want to take these stories and have them locked up in a library where only other academics could engage with them. Eventually, Madonna and I started brainstorming about ways to get the stories in the oral histories out into the native community.

CK: When I joined the project, I thought all of the oral histories were incredible. But, I was consistently drawn to the parallel stories of Madonna and her daughter Marcy. They were the only mother-daughter combo in the interviews and I started to see a way where we could explore another side of the American Indian Movement through family and community, which are the bedrock of indigenous values anyway. So in 2012, I left my job in NYC and relocated to South Dakota with a one way ticket and we got down to making the film.


How long was your process from beginning to end and did you have any challenges during the filming process?


CK: Six years! Six long years. At one point a building collapsed on Madonna after a tornado swept through a council meeting she was attending on the reservation and she was trapped for over an hour. She came out and said that we better “finish the movie before [she] died.” No pressure!

EC: Working with Madonna Thunder Hawk as a subject was quite a journey because she’s an enthusiastic collaborator, but a reluctant participant. At least in this very front-facing way that was never her thing. She calls it “chasing the mic”. She’d rather be making things happen behind the scenes politically than getting media attention. But that’s what we loved about her! She wasn’t inclined to take credit for anything, in fact by doing so she would be undermining her status in grassroots organizing, but she was and still is a very active force in fighting for indigenous rights on many, many levels. Madonna is a very complex woman, who is hard to get at emotionally – not necessarily the easiest person to carry a film. But we have far too many films where filmmakers go find an emotionally compromised Indian and make a real banger of a dramatic film that plays well to outsiders – but those aren’t films about Indians. They’re films about the effects of settler colonialism, so it was important to us to keep working at ways to convey this force that is Madonna Thunder Hawk.


How long did post-production take and editing the final product together?


It took a long time. Over a year if you add up the starts and stops.  We actually achieved a very nice fine-cut of the film at one point, but we took a step back and it just was not the story we wanted to tell. At first we were very invested in using verite to tell the story, because that is the film language we knew best.  But for this particular film, we found verite very limiting in conveying the nuances of an indigenous worldview in ways that do not make it easy for viewers to substitute preconceived notions or stereotypes for real connection and understanding.

The film really started coming together when we decolonized our filmmaking choices. We were so lucky to have the support and input of a lot of very accomplished filmmakers we love and trust, but at the end of the day, we came to realize we were still the best people in the room to tell this story, due to our unique perspective. This film is a directing debut for both of us, so we wasted a lot of time thinking, “Well, so-and-so makes great films and has so many awards, so they must know best,” when in reality those award winning films came from such a different perspective than we have – a lot of advice was taking the film further from where it needed to be.


Throughout the whole process, what kept you going while making this feature? What drove you? How much coffee are we talking about here?


There was indeed a lot of coffee and a lot of Coke and Pepsi. But really what drove us to see this through was the simple fact that it had to be done and that it was always bigger than us. You really don’t want to make a film in Indian Country or about indigenous issues without an understanding of and commitment to ethics and accountability to community. It’s no joke that ancestors and future generations are counting on you to come through. So keeping all those things in mind, we did what we could to hand off to each other when we needed to and rely on the incredible work of the amazing team of people we were lucky to work with over the years.

And the infinite patience of our subject-collaborators in getting to the end.


A very technical question, but what kind of cameras and editing equipment did you use to capture this documentary?


We shot on the Sony EX1 for verite because we found the smaller size easier to work with for long periods of time. And it didn’t require as many add ons to be field-ready. For the black box group interviews that are the spine of the film we enlisted cinematographer Andreas Burgess who helped design a space that could capture the way the women engage in each other’s stories, find new memories with each other, and share more naturally. For that setup, we built a 360 dolly with a DSLR that could move naturally and follow the women’s interactions with each other, while two other DSLR’s on sticks moved around the perimeter for one shots as needed. We also had a final locked off camera for a master safety shot.

For post production, we cut the majority of the film on Final Cut 7, but FC7, was just like, “Can I go now? I want to retire. It’s 2017 and I’m Final Cut 7 and I just can’t anymore.” So we put it – and us – out of its misery and switched to Premiere to finish.


After the movie shows at HotDocs, where is the movie going next? Are there any other festivals coming up?


We’ll be having our US Premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival May 21st, 26th, and 27th. We’re looking forward to meeting all of our Pacific Northwest Tribes up that way!


How do you feel with the theatrical experience versus streaming debate for documentaries? Are you okay with the movie going to streaming/digital only, or do you strive for the theatrical experience?


For the industry as a whole we are concerned about the increase of direct-to-digital releases, if only because it seems A&P budgets for such releases are non-existent. So you end up with tons of great movies out there, but no one knows about them. As activist-filmmakers, we also believe the human connection and shared experience of watching something like Warrior Women in a theater with other folx is important to the goal of the film, which is to inspire individuals and communities toward strength and solidarity. However, streaming platforms are also critical to reaching our core indigenous audience who either live in areas far from theatres or for whom movie tickets are a financial stretch, so all things considered for this film accessibility is the most important thing to us.


What is the one piece of advice you would say to anyone looking into making a documentary short or feature for the first time?


CK: When you are deep in it and can’t remember what you’re doing or why you’re doing it and the edit feels like a mess, step back and try to remember that sparked the whole film for you? What was the thing – the image, the quote, the sound – that made you want to make the movie? It’s shocking how much those kinds of things get lost in the deluge of all that goes into a movie. But once you reconnect with that thing again, you can always use it to find the film you’re meant to be making.

EC: Just like any project, always keep your eyes on the prize.


And finally, what is your all time favorite documentary feature film?


CK: The Farmer’s Wife by David Sutherland blew my mind when I first watched it in my early teens during an airing on the local PBS station in Oklahoma. It’s a perfect example of the documentary adage – “All you need is behavior.” That film will always have a special place in my heart because it was a first.

The one film that always gets me excited is Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach. It is such a perfect balance of real and surreal that the greatest truths come out of the more performative stuff. And you never feel like these kids from this really economically and spiritually depressed place are being manipulated in any way because the direction comes from a space of love and human bonding. How rare is it you get to actually see the subjects appearing to gather strength from the process of making the film? Incredible. And of course she shot it on a 2-chip camera from Best Buy or something like that and it’s still one of the most striking docs ever. It’s gorgeous. Come to think of it, her filmmaking is very indigenous in many ways – atemporal, valuing character over biography, and not afraid to break or experiment with form to catch the spirit of the space her subjects occupy.


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