MAITLAND – The audience at the Enzian Theatre in Maitland rose in standing ovation April 16 following the Florida Film Festival world premiere of “Wrestling Alligators,” a documentary about the life and times of Seminole Chief Jim Billie.
Five years in the making, the 90-minute film follows the trials and tribulations of the longtime Seminole Chairman, from his humble birth at the Dania Chimp Farm through his war experiences in the killing fields of Vietnam, his battles with a federal government that preferred to keep Indians down, his struggles within his own Tribe, all the way to current times where he still lives in a chickee in his 28th year as the Seminoles’ top leader.
More than anything else, the film certifies Chairman Billie’s role as the defiant protector of Tribal sovereignty who stubbornly transformed the economics of all American Indians by pioneering legal Indian gaming – “the new Buffalo,” an economic power engine now pulsing through much of Indian Country.
“I liked the movie, but I wasn’t really surprised at anything, like most movies,” Chairman Billie said as a crowd gathered for photos and autographs after the final credits rolled. “I lived my life. I already knew what was going to happen.”
Chairman Billie was accompanied by his daughter Aubee, 12, whose eyes widened as she recognized a younger version of herself on the big screen.
“The funny thing is these cameras were always around us, but I really never knew they making a movie,” she said with a laugh as she hugged her father. “I don’t know what I was thinking back then, but I never really thought there would ever be a day like this.”
All the film principals attended the premier, including director/writer Andrew Shea, producer/writer Udy Epstein, producer James Eowan, executive producer Jonathan Cordish and CEO David Cordish of the Cordish Companies, which financed the venture.
“We plan to place “Wrestling Alligators” in film festivals, as many as we can, for a year,” said David Cordish, whose film divisions have created several Academy Award-nominated films. “After that, we’ll make a decision which way to go next.”
Hard Rock International Chairman and Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen, whose efforts to bring big-time casino gaming to the Seminoles – and Indian Country – were well portrayed in the film. His wife, Isabel, joined Tampa Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino President John Fontana for the premiere at the Enzian, a unique art playhouse which offered food and drink for the film experience. Allen, used by the filmmakers to articulate the complicated paths taken to push gaming through a blockade of objectors, was singled out for praise by Chairman Billie during a question-and-answer session after the film.
Eowan said efforts will also be made this year to show the film on Native American reservations. He expects the film to garner a lot of attention because of how well known the Chairman is in Indian Country.
“Unfortunately, individual people will not be able to acquire a copy of the film just now,” said Eowan, who added the film should go on sale toward the end of this year. “People who want to follow the film as it gets reviews around the world can go to the movie’s Facebook page.”
“As a Tribal member, I can say I am very proud of that film. There were many things I didn’t know about the story of the Chairman’s life and I found it very interesting,” said Trishanna Storm, Chairman’s executive assistant. “I’m sure there are some political things in there that will be controversial around here. But it was a real documentary and it told the whole story.”
The film is filled with historical images – still and video – of Seminole life, history, culture and people gleaned from many archives, including collections housed at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, Seminole Media Productions and The Seminole Tribune.
“I especially liked seeing all the old footage of our ancestors,” Storm said.
Highlights of the film include footage shot in 1997 by filmmaker Leslie Gaines depicting Chairman Billie and his musical band performing the song “Buzzard Dance” at the ornate Tampa Theatre. Eight of the Chairman’s songs appear in the documentary. Several scenes feature Chairman Billie wrestling alligators, including the incident in 2000 when his finger was bitten off.
Other scenes include various dramatic courtroom scenes, the young Florida folk music duo Frank and Ann Thomas singing “Bingo!” and interviews with attorney Bruce Rogow, former Broward Sheriff and state Attorney General Bob Butterworth and former Tribal leaders Max Osceola and Howard Tommie.
“We couldn’t put everything we wanted in the film. It would have been three hours long or more,” Epstein said. “James Billie is a man with a very large story to tell. I hope we did him and history justice with this production.”
The next showing of “Wrestling Alligators” will be May 28 at 9 p.m. at the Florida Folk Festival in the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs.