Those interested in indigenous sweat lodge ceremonies now have a vivid cinematic depiction of them in Goodknife, a breathtaking documentary short on these spiritual rituals. Directed by Iqbal Ahmed, the filmmaker behind Bug Man, the film explores sweat lodges through the story of David Warren Goodknife, a man of mixed North and South American indigenous heritage, who broke his addictions to alcohol and drugs by attending sweat lodge ceremonies.
Ahmed tells The Creators Project that he has always been curious about sweat lodges. Intrigued by their rituals and their ceremonies—particularly their intent—he wanted to get a proper understanding of them by making a film that explored them cinematically. To do this, Ahmed reached out to Goodknife.
“The moment I met him, I was drawn in,” says Ahmed. “He has this deep but wavering voice—the kind of voice that could hypnotize you. The kind of voice that shows strength and vulnerability in equal parts. It’s a voice that feels like it comes from a man who has lived hard. Rough around the edges but also smooth.”
“After spending time with David and interviewing him, I realized his story as a man was vital to this project,” Ahmed adds. “It was human and grounding and relatable. Ultimately, I don’t think the film’s story would be successful without both aspects. At the end of the day, I think people are fascinating—we are so flawed but with such a capacity to grow and inspire.”
To shoot the documentary, Ahmed decided to approximate a sweat lodge because the pitch black environment, along with the heat and steam, is not ideal for cinematography. Ahmed says there was no way a camera could survive it, or provide any useful footage. So he approached the lodge and its ritual aspects with some creative license. Ahmed wanted viewers to feel each aspect through its visual texture.
Since Goodknife had accidentally and “magically” stumbled on sweat lodges, marking a turning point in his life, Ahmed decided to replicate this experience on camera. He represented Goodknife’s larger life struggles through gliding shots across the Joshua Tree desert. Ahmed chose black and white film stock because, as he says, it seemed a nice fit for Goodknife, an “unfussy man” who cuts right to the chase.
“Watching him on his own journey—trying to find something, but not quite sure what that was,” Ahmed explains. “I wanted to feel emotion in the desert. We used lovely anamorphic lenses to get wide vistas.”
“And after he ‘discovers’ the lodge, I wanted to contrast those gliding and wide shots with extremely tight shots for the ceremonial and ritual aspects,” he adds. “There was really tight focus and frequent distortion to the imagery. I wanted to translate the heat and the dark, the wet and the dusty. I wanted it to feel as trippy and disorienting as a lodge actually felt to me the first time.”
While Goodknife and the sweat lodge are the characters, the focal point of the documentary, the Joshua Tree desert is also very prominent and expansive throughout. Goodknife runs a lodge in Joshua Tree, so Ahmed knew it would be significant in telling the story.
“The more I chatted with David, the more I realized that lodges are really about rebirth, about finding yourself after a difficult journey,” Ahmed explains. “The desert was literally and figuratively a symbol of his ‘journey.’”
Ahmed would like his short doc to be seen as a counterpoint to how Native American culture really came to the fore with the Standing Rock protest. For him, Goodknife is an exploration of sorts about how to approach indigenous culture.
“I wanted to talk about an indigenous ceremony that has been used for spiritual enlightenment for thousands of years,” says Ahmed. “And I wanted to show that it can be useful today, for the very same reasons, and it can even help us with our modern struggles. But we need to consider where it came from, and treat it respectfully.”
“David does that when he runs lodges for others,” he says. “And that respect translates through the ceremony, and it heals. Traditions are important. David didn’t even know how much until these old traditions pulled him back from his own personal abyss.”
Click here to see more of Iqbal Ahmed’s film projects.