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Omaha Magazine

History in the Filmmaking: Brigitte Timmerman Documents Nebraskans

Jul 07, 2020 11:35AM ● By Joel Stevens
Omaha-based director, writer, and producer Brigitte Timmerman

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Film, it is often said, is a collaborative endeavor.

Brigitte Timmerman took that axiom to heart for her first feature-length documentary.

The Omaha-based director, writer, and producer of UmoNhoN Iye: The Omaha Speaking, her film on the Omaha Nation’s native language, was made with the full support and blessing of the Macy, Nebraska-based tribe. The film focuses on the Omaha’s fluent-speaking elders, their reflections on growing up with their native language, outsiders’ many efforts to phase it out, and the importance of language preservation in reclaiming cultural identity. 

Timmerman came into the project with little awareness of the issue. She left with an award-winning film that’s both a historical record and an educational tool.

“All of the editing and interviews were controlled by the elders and how they wanted to tell their story, not me,” Timmerman said of her Omaha tribe-approved production.

“It was imperative that they be documented in the way they wanted to be documented and recorded. This was their voice and I wanted to make sure their voice was heard. That was the most important thing to me for the documentary.”

After three years of work, UmoNhoN Iye debuted in 2018 to rave reviews. It was picked up in April for streaming by Amazon Prime after winning Best Documentary at the Red Nation International Film Festival in Los Angeles and Outstanding Documentary at The Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum’s Western Heritage Awards in Oklahoma City.

The film, which is narrated by actor and comedian Tatanka Means, eschews the well-documented issues of alcoholism, drug abuse, and poverty on reservations and remains hopeful and positive. The power of language in the face of shifting cultural identities comes across in almost every vintage photograph and the dozens of interviews, many in the native Omaha language.

“I knew almost right away there was a very important, historical documentary here,” Timmerman said. “Hopefully it will last the test of the time and people will go and view it years from now for historical purposes. It has a lot of historical value that was really guided by the elders.”

A self-described ranch kid, Timmerman grew up rodeo barrel racing in Springfield, and graduated from Gretna High School in 1987. While working in marketing and advertising in Chicago, she joined the Chicago Filmmakers Co-op. It was in the labs and workshops with other aspiring filmmakers where she discovered her passion for documentary storytelling.

“It was an awesome experience,” she said. “The classes and networking were an incredibly valuable experience. It was a great opportunity to get in touch with the independent film community.”

When Timmerman returned to Omaha in 2012 she joined the Nebraska Film Association. She is currently the president of the organization that brings local filmmakers together and advocates for tax incentives to lure more film and television productions to the state. 

It was in 2015 that she was first approached by John Pappan, a friend and member of the tribe, with a request she record his 87-year-old father, one of a handful of remaining Omaha speakers.

In all, she recorded 14 Omaha speakers for the project. Eight have passed since she interviewed them.

Native American culture has always been close to Timmerman’s heart. She spent the spring and summers of her childhood on her family’s ranch in the Sandhills, “across the road” from the Pine Ridge Reservation. She also helped out on a documentary on Pine Ridge and during the making of UmoNhoN Iye she was ceremoniously adopted into an Omaha Nation family.

Timmerman’s first film, a short documentary called Sandhills Cowboy, was an intimate portrait of a working cowboy in Cody, Nebraska, whose poetry speaks to the stark beauty and isolation of the region.

“I just felt like I couldn’t say no,” Timmerman said of taking on the Omaha language project. “As much work as it was, I was close to this tribe, and how important it was as historical preservation, it just took a life of its own. But it also took a lot of patience in developing the trust and relationships. It felt like something that had to be done. Somebody had to do it.”

UmoNhoN Iye took three years to complete. Timmerman brought on Scott Conrad, who won an Academy Award for editing Rocky, to help carve the story out of her nearly 50 hours of footage down to its 67 minute running time. 

“I figured there was no way he’d take my project, but it turned out he was an advocate for Native American issues,” she said of Conrad. “The first thing he said was he wanted to do something to help Native Americans. He took it as a passion project.”

The hours of footage that didn’t make it into the film has since been donated to the Omaha Nation schools to use in their cultural education.

“The best compliment I ever got on the film was someone told me, ‘This film makes me proud to be Omaha,’” Timmerman said.  

Timmerman has plenty of irons in her filmmaking fire. In addition to playing a small role in an upcoming horror film, she’s currently penning a screenplay that combines her interest in Native culture and the environment.

“It’s a story set in a dystopian future with an activist and her family that must find a Native American community for survival,” she said of the script she hopes to complete in May. 

As for her nonfiction films, she has no shortage of material she’s circling. She hopes to return to the Sandhills for another story on Native American culture somewhere down the road. She also has been following a group of American Indian Movement (AIM) activists in Minnesota and would love to do something on mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There’s always something out there,” Timmerman said. “The thing with documentaries is you have to spend a couple years on it, so you have to really be intrigued by the subject matter.” 

Editor's note: It was announced on July 21 that Brigitte's first screenplay, Refuge Nation, was accepted in the Cordillera International Film Festival.

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This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.