“Sisters Rising” is an intimate portrait of 6 Native women who have survived sexual violence and/or domestic violence in their lives, and how that has transformed them. Through their trauma, they have become inspiring women who are fighting to help other women in their communities by providing support, sharing their stories, and working to change tribal and federal laws to protect women in the future. 

I spoke with co-directors Willow O’Feral and Brad Heck on my podcast Faux Reel Podcast a year ago about the process of getting to know people in a community that is not your own, the impact these stories have had on them and why they’re important to share. I’m sharing my interview with Cinema Femme as it’s now streaming for free on WORLD Channel’s site: https://worldchannel.org/episode/america-reframed-sisters-rising/ and on the PBS app through November 25th. 

You can listen to the full interview on the Faux Reel podcast episode Sisters Rising with Willow O’Feral & Brad Heck. https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/fqkzY1vw4ub

“Sisters Rising” directors Willow O’Feral and Brad Heck

How did you two first get involved with this project? 

Willow O’Feral (WO): Six years ago we were living in New York, working odd jobs, and looking for an inspiring documentary subject to make our first doc about. 

Brad Heck (BH): We had both been working on film sets and in the industry mostly on narrative crews. We had this idea that we wanted to start producing and directing our own documentary work. 

WO: I was part of an Afro-Brazilian samba reggae drum corps. All women, it was like 50 women. It was so incredible, it was one of my favorite parts of living in New York. They were always sharing really incredible, inspiring projects and things online and social media. One of them shared a self-defense mobile workshop app that was being run by this young woman, Patty Stonefish, for Indigenous women. I looked at her crowdfunding campaign, and through watching her talk I learned about these high levels of violence against Native women which I had never heard of before. I’m white, Brad’s white, and we’re both raging feminists and really care about racial justice issues, but somehow both of us had never heard of this issue. We were horrified, shocked and enraged by this. And we were really alarmed to learn that Native women are being preyed on by predominantly non-Native men, largely white men. We felt compelled to do something about it. 

We contacted Patty and began forming a relationship with her. It snowballed from there. We raised some money on Kickstarter to be able to drive out to North Dakota where she was at the time and spent time filming with her. We also ended up on the Fort Berthold Reservation where the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations reside. It’s also in the middle of the Bakken oil fracking boom which really ratchets up the intensity of the situation that Native women face with the high levels of violence. Because where you have environmental degradation, it tends to be braided with violence against women. And in this case, especially Ingidenous women. 

Because where you have environmental degradation, it tends to be braided with violence against women.

Willow O’Feral

We started with Patty thinking this project would just be about her and her self-defense workshop, but it expanded into this constellation of these six incredible survivors who are all very diverse Indigenous women fighting this issue on various levels. Whether it is writing tribal code to be able to prosecute non-Natives against sex trafficking, or being a legal advocate, or in Patty’s case self-defense workshops. 

It sounds like you came as outsiders who really dived in, but I noticed in your credits that I recognized at least one Native filmmaker who was an Assistant Editor (Razelle Benally). Once you got to know everybody, were you using other Native crew and really depending on other people to welcome you in and assist you on this? 

BH: Yeah, very much so. In fact, we’re super proud of our crew both above and below the lines. Over 75% women and over half Native or Indigenous folks. We were aware that we were telling stories from communities that we were not a part of. We were bringing our skills and perspectives, but we also wanted folks that bring their skills and perspectives from communities like that. 

Coming in and not knowing too much about this issue beforehand, you really told a story that was incredibly supportive and empowering. What did this project end up meaning to you on a personal level? 

BH: I feel like one of the things taken from this film is that I have an inner Sarah Deer, and an inner Lisa, and an inner Loreline. I feel like there are moments where I really think about these women, and think like “what would they do in this situation?” Or try to channel their fire or channel their wisdom or channel their heart to make it through difficult things. 

WO: The women in the film made me think about generational trauma in a way that was much more personal to me. There’s been so much gendered violence and sexual violence in my family, and I think that was the subconscious driving force when wanting to make this film, and I didn’t know that in the beginning. I sort of discovered it slowly later. Like, ‘oh, I’m also trying to exercise my own demons, or my family’s demons in a way in this process.’

And also I wanted to explore settler colonialism a little bit. For me personally it made me spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m an American and a descendent of settlers, and what does that mean for me? I don’t have any answers, but it is a question I’ve had to chew on and chew on and chew on for years now. I don’t think I would have necessarily thought about this as much if we hadn’t made this film. 

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