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On The Ridge

average rating is 4 out of 5


Patrick Foley


Posted on:

Jun 4, 2024

Film Reviews
On The Ridge
Directed by:
Denis Paul Circo, Ishma Yusaf Valenti
Written by:
Denis Paul Circo, Ishma Yusaf Valenti
Robert Brave Heart, Ross Cantu, Denis Paul Circo

Box office success from last year’s Killers of the Flower Moon and the prominence of Marvel Studios’ Echo are just some of the recent projects which have given greater visibility to Native people in the United States. But harrowing looks at some of the darkest episodes of modern native history or superhero fantasising of the culture cannot truly represent the actual lives of Native American peoples in 2024. On The Ridge is a documentary that takes an in-depth look at the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, following their efforts to strengthen community bonds and counter constructed prejudices.


The film highlights a number of residents of the reservation and recognises the positive contributions they have made to their communities and the inspiration they have cultivated in others. From the powerful and lasting lessons of the tribes’ ancestors such as Black Elk whose lessons are maintained by the modern-day elders, or the contemporary message promoted by local musician Scotti Clifford, the film is careful to pay respects to the tribes’ history and uplift the positive stories, whilst making sure the challenges the reservation faces are also acknowledged.


On The Ridge is an educational film designed to honour the Pine Ridge reservation and challenge assumptions viewers may possess about contemporary Native American life. Filmmakers Denis Paul Circo and Ishma Yusaf Valenti give a wide-ranging overview of various community projects and initiatives taking place on at Pine Ridge and allow the people who live there to detail how they mix the modern and traditional through a series of interviews and intimate footage of their lives. The film feels remarkably personal and caring, and Circo and Valenti have clearly taken considered steps to ensure their admiration of the culture is evident. From regularly referring to lessons and proverbs passed down from forefathers, to allowing the documentary subjects to tell their stories in their own time, in their own environment such as schools, respect is sewn throughout the film.


Audiences in the UK are likely to be less familiar with the modern-day challenges Native American people face in the United States. The film does make reference to these issues, such as higher crime and drug addiction rates or unique dietary issues, but does not spend a great deal of time elaborating on them. This is a conscious choice for the film to be educational and celebratory, as opposed to political or historical. Given these aims, this omitted focus is understandable, and the discussions amongst the subjects are sufficient to inspire viewers to undertake their own research about the harsh realities of how and why reservation life has come to have its own identity and place in American society. It is something that is worth knowing going into the film, however.


The content of the film itself is generally heartwarming and uplifting. Particular highlights are Scotti Clifford’s reflection on his life story and inspirations, and teacher Sierra Concha’s explanation of the importance of teaching the Lakota language to new generations of children. As mentioned previously the film steers away from directly tackling heavier social issues, but the emotional tales it does feature helps the filmmakers realise their admiration.


Given its community focus, On The Ridge is certainly more attuned to US audiences than UK. The moving stories and inspirational people that it documents, however, will be sure to engage with viewers regardless of where they are from. It is important that filmmakers like Circo and Valenti are shining a light on the smaller and forgotten people who maintain Native culture, rather than just fading histories or mystical legends.

Watch the official trailer for On The Ridge here.

About the Film Critic
Patrick Foley
Patrick Foley
Digital / DVD Release, Indie Feature Film, Documentary
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