Independent Lens: March Point

“If you drive down Reservation Road, you’ll see a flame shooting towards the sky. It’s the Shell and Tesoro oil refineries that’s set on March’s Point.” As 18-year-old Cody Cayou speaks, the film he’s helped to make, March Point, shows the refinery smokestacks, belching fire and smoke. It’s a remarkable sight, not only because it reveals the diurnal pollution near his home on the Swinomish reservation in Washington State, but also because of his conclusion: “To us,” he says, “it seems normal that they’re there, because they’ve been there throughout our lives.”

Premiering tonight on PBS’ Independent Lens, March Point is full of such annotations, at once understated and devastating. The result of a collaboration among Cody and two friends, 16-year-old Travis Tom and Nick Clark, 17, along with director Annie Silverstein and producer Tracy Rector, the film documents the boys’ research into the refineries’ effects on the Swinomish reservation in Washington State. “We wanted to make gangster movies,” Travis says, “film a car crash or rap video, but they said it had to be about the environment.” “They” would be the folks at Native Lens, a media literacy program for Native youth. Started in 2003, the organization helps young people “to tell stories with the camera,” to investigate local histories and cultures while expressing themselves using digital media. Nick, Travis, and Cody’s focus on the refineries leads them to speak with tribal elders, fishermen, and their state’s representatives in DC, Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Nick Larson (“I thought it was pretty cool,” Travis notes, “because there was a lot of rich people in there,” though the boys agree, “We didn’t fit in because we don’t have suits on”). These interviews, “like every other interview in DC,” are conducted off-camera, though the boys commend their subjects for meeting with them at all, something that cannot be said for Governor Chris Gregoire, who never even answers the filmmakers’ emails requesting information and a conversation about the treaty granting land rights to the oil companies.

Disputed by the Swinomish tribe, a 1865 treaty let President Grant to take land unilaterally, land that has since the 1950s been used by oil companies (whose possession is indicated in the film by shots of “Keep Out” signage and surveillance cameras set up to catch trespassers). As March Point shows, the Swinomish tribe’s traditional reliance on the Skagit Valley’s resources (through fishing, clamming, and crabbing) is increasingly risky. “We’re gatherers,” says tribal member Tony Cladoosby, “The oysters, the different types of seafood that we have always gathered to sustain ourselves, it’s an important part of who we are. And when you have biologists telling you there’s carcinogens in your fish — the mercury, the lead, the pesticides — it’s scary, because we as native people consume more of this type of food than anybody else in the Northwest.” He smiles ruefully as he concludes, “But I’m not gonna quit eating it.”

As Travis, Cody, and Nick work out the vexed relations among the tribe, the U.S. government, and the oil companies, they find as well as focus for their own energies. The documentary charts this process of self-discovery. In the beginning, in their self-introductions, each boy tells a story that is at once his own and too typical. Uninspired by high school and duly distracted, Travis notes, “There’s lot of drugs in this community, but there’s like, a lot of drugs in every community, though.” Cody recalls their own smoking and drinking (“Sometimes I make choices that will help me out in the long run, other times I’ll make a choice just to have some fun… Those are the choices that mess you up in life”), then describes their decision to change course: “Two years ago we made a deal with our treatment counselors that we would start making this film with Native Lens if they would let us out of treatment some afternoons.”

By turns subtle and awkward, always perceptive, the film offers glimpses of early resistance to the project (“Can you repeat the question?”) and specific difficulties (immersed in shadows in a recording booth, Nick says, “I lost my grandpa about eight months before I got into Native Lens and my life was just going down the drain from there”). For the most part, March Point concentrates on the boys’ way out, that is, the movie as a way to tell their story. This includes “official” comments gleaned from interviews with the tribe’s general manager, a decidedly uninformative Shell Oil rep (“We treat all the water that comes out of the refinery before we discharge it, we have a full environmental and safety department”), and the great AIM (American Indian Movement) leader John Trudell (“That’s what the ancestral ways are all about,” he urges them, “bringing something to the people”).

More affecting moments offer impressions of daily life on the res, from photos of the boys as children to their own memories of fishing with parents to breakdown meetings at a local diner (they joke about Dances With Wolves: “He’s white, he’s with the cavalry, he dresses like an Indian.”) When Cody shows his father Vernon footage of the film on his mac — “Just so he can see that I’ve been doing something nice, doing something for the tribe,” he explains — is reaction seems imperceptible. But as they walk to look at Vernon’s decrepit boat (which is, Cody observes, “broke down right now, he’s planning on getting it running again sometime this year or next year”) and pose for a still photo, it’s clear what’s at stake — for the U.S., the oil companies, the tribe, and especially, the next generations — in this story and its telling. As Nick sums up, “It wasn’t what I expected, I would get frustrated. Shooting and interviewing and meeting every weekend: it’s a lot of work making a movie, but at the end, it pays off.”

RATING 7 / 10