Toronto International Film Festival

Praise for being sensitive

Woman Walks Ahead actress Jessica Chastain alters scene so her character is in the background

Actress Jessica Chastain works on at least one film a year with a female director.
Actress Jessica Chastain works on at least one film a year with a female director.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA

TORONTO • In one scene in the movie Woman Walks Ahead, the character played by Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain was supposed to sit beside tribal chief Sitting Bull.

But she altered the scene and had her character sit in the background, drawing praise from her co-actor for being sensitive to a story about indigenous people.

Indeed, while her name will receive top billing when Woman Walks Ahead hits cinemas, Chastain was eager to avoid playing a white saviour in the tale of two disenfranchised people finding hope and resistance together.

The movie, which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday night, tells the true story of Caroline Weldon, who was also known as Catherine.

She travelled alone from New York to the Dakota Territory, ostensibly to paint a portrait of Lakota Sioux tribal chief Sitting Bull.

"In the 1880s, a woman couldn't save anyone," Chastain said on Monday, adding: "Sitting Bull is the one rallying the people and speaking to the people."

Michael Greyeyes, the Canadian Plains Cree actor who played Sitting Bull, said Chastain altered a scene in which she was to sit next to Sitting Bull while he addressed his people.

"That speaks to her generosity, that speaks to her political consciousness about white narratives within indigenous stories," he noted.

The film portrays Sitting Bull in the days leading up to his 1890 murder and the subsequent massacre at Wounded Knee, working with the painter to convince his people to reject a land treaty amid a United States military campaign to subdue the native population.

"I see it as an alternative Western," director Susanna White said.

"It's offering people a voice who were a part of that story whose stories were never told."

The film was shot while protesters camped at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota fighting the planned Dakota Access pipeline, reminding the cast and crew of the ongoing battle to protect indigenous land.

"The concerns of the dominant culture remain that we must consume, we must take and we will clear the lands that we desire through starvation and violence," Greyeyes said.

Chastain, whose production company aims to amplify marginalised voices and who works on at least one film a year with a female director, said she was drawn to the tale of a woman consigned to historical footnotes.

"I want to put out stories in the world that hopefully will be little seeds of inspiration," said the 2013 Best Actress nominee for her performance in thriller Zero Dark Thirty.

"For young girls to know that, 'Yes, there are women before you and they did incredible things and you can too.' You have to put your money where your mouth is. You can't just talk about it, you have to do whatever you can to create change," she added.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2017, with the headline 'Praise for being sensitive'. Print Edition | Subscribe