Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

Fortier's film reveals Alcatraz experience

As with all significant moments in history, there is always more than one story to tell - and it's the recollections of those who experienced Alcatraz from the inside and outside that makes James Fortier's documentary "Alcatraz Is Not An Island" so revealing.

The 1969 occupation of the most famous island in the United States fueled a generation of activists and galvanized Indian country at a critical time. The full weight of the federal government's policies of termination and relocation were being felt by urban Indians across the country.

But Alcatraz, like other political activities of the '60s, became victim to external and internal forces. Along with dealing with the obvious logistical problems of occupying a site that was an island and had been abandoned for years, there were other difficulties in building a community overnight. Issues of leadership, negotiation strategies with the government and ideologies on what an contemporary-traditional Indian society is, all played out under the scrutiny of national media attention.

For many, the occupation was a bittersweet experience and as director-producer James Fortier explains, he feels that time was the healing ingredient.

"Some of the biggest challenges were not just finding the people, but then getting them to do the interviews," he says. "With some people, we had to first show them other people's interviews before they'd agree or want to tell their story. A lot of people didn't want to talk about it.

"I think that may be one of the major reasons why a big documentary on the occupation couldn't have been done for a long time is because the people involved didn't want to bring it up. I think over time the feeling toward the occupation has changed, it evolved and I think the accomplishments - because they were subtle and weren't so obvious at the time - it took awhile for those effects to really crystallize. Their feelings toward the occupation softened and actually it turned into pride at some point, so then they were willing to talk about it."

Drawing from a diverse circle of storytellers, a wide array of impressions and memories are shared. And it is all those stories that give insight into the personalities and incidents that made up the 19-month occupation.

"Alcatraz touched and affected the lives of Native people to the extent that it affected people that weren't even there. At any time there may have been 15,000 to 20,000 Native people on the island and each one of them went home with a different story to tell. Combine that with thirty years and you have a lot of variation of what went on," Fortier says.

"Our challenge was to sort through all of that and see what were the dominant themes and recollections and then have them all come together and be represented by key storytellers in the film. I hope we captured the essence of the occupation for most Native people whether they were there or the other generations that came after."

James Fortier's documentary is a rare reflection into a historic event - a portrait that strips the infamous occupation of any romanticism that may have enveloped it at the time. Now, three decades later, the filmmaker presents the facts and motivations that provide a clearer picture of what the occupation started out as, and ultimately ended up achieving. It is a struggle about re-defining self-determination - a story full of heart, personal tragedy, collective vision and the realities of moving forward.

"Someone said to me that the thing about Alcatraz is that those who got involved with it can't just let it go. It's going to be with you for the rest of your life. And even though I'm a young man and I was just a kid when the occupation happened, but now having gone through the occupation through this film I can see how it will stay with me for the rest of my life," Fortier says. "Once you're connected to that island in any way it's hard to let go - it's almost like it won't let go of you. Living in the Bay area, every Thanksgiving there's a sunrise ceremony out there - the spirit of the occupation is kept alive."