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'Conscience Point' documentary focuses on tensions between Shinnecocks and wealthy Hamptonites

Shinnecock activist Rebecca Hill-Genia is prominently featured in

Shinnecock activist Rebecca Hill-Genia is prominently featured in "Conscience Point," a documentary directed by Treva Wurmfeld that's screening at this year's Hamptons International Film Festival. Credit: Conscience Point Film, LLC

It had all the makings of a mystery: On a construction site in Southampton last year, workers unearthed a skull, bone and glass bottle that turned out to be more than 50 years old.

It was no mystery to the Shinnecock people of the area, however. An archeologist at the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation confirmed their claim that the remains were likely of American Indian origin, thereby making the site a sacred burial ground. The discovery sparked a campaign by Shinnecock members to preserve the gravesite and return the land to its natural state.

"The entire island is our own backyard," says Rebecca Hill-Genia, a Shinnecock activist who helped lead the fight. "We call it the island of shells: Sewanhaka."

A new documentary, "Conscience Point," focuses on the tense relationship between the Shinnecock Nation and the present-day inhabitants of one of the wealthiest zip codes in America. Named for the spot where colonists arrived in 1640 and founded what would become modern-day Southampton, "Conscience Point" features interviews with Shinnecock members, local developers and city officials grappling with land-rights issues that began centuries ago and have only gotten more problematic over time. The film will hold its world premiere Sunday, Oct. 13, at the Hamptons International Film Festival within the Views from Long Island program. The film will also air Monday, Nov. 18, at 10:30 p.m. on the PBS series "Independent Lens."

"Most people don't know that there's a Native American reservation in the Hamptons," says Treva Wurmfeld, the film's New York City-born director and co-producer. "Most people have heard of the Hamptons, but they don't know that the Shinnecock have 1,000 acres there. That's a jaw-dropping moment for people who aren't familiar with them."

Wurmfeld, 41, began her career in the visual effects field and worked on several making-of documentaries for such films as Doug Liman's "Jumper" (2008). The seeds for "Conscience Point" were planted in her mind sometime in 2013, when her first feature documentary, "Shepard & Dark," about the lifelong friendship between the playwright Sam Shepard and his longtime friend Johnny Dark, screened at Stony Brook University's Southampton campus. There, Wurmfeld met a woman who later introduced her to Hill-Genia, the Shinnecock activist. Hill-Genia invited the filmmaker to document a community fire-pit for her group Women Against Violence Everyday, or WAVE.

"I was just completely lured in by her honesty and her activist principles," Wurmfeld recalls. "This was before #MeToo, long before Trump and the 2016 presidential race, and I was feeling a kind of need for someone who was that fearless in my own life."

As the two women got to know each other, Wurmfeld realized Hill-Genia was also committed to the issue of land preservation. A former coffee roaster who retired just over two years ago, Hill-Genia, 62, now devotes much of her time to activism. As co-chair of the Graves Protection Warrior Society, she works to preserve burial sites that have been lost in the rush to build increasingly high-priced properties across Southampton.

"When I was a little girl, my grandmother didn't take us to places like Disney World or amusement parks. She took us to the cemeteries," Hill-Genia says. "That was our education. And all of that stuck with me. She was telling me something, a long time ago – to take care of the dead."

As Wurmfeld began focusing on the issue of Shinnecock land preservation, she realized that her outsider status was hampering her access to tribal members. "It became clear at a certain point, maybe after a year or so, that documenting the day-to-day issues on the reservation was going to be challenging," Wurmfeld says. "People don't want to air their dirty laundry, and I didn't want to be in a position where I was prying."

At a Southampton Town Hall meeting, however, Wurmfeld found a liaison of sorts in Charles Certain, who identifies as Shinnecock but also works for Southampton's municipal television channel, SEA-TV, where he films town hall meetings.

"I think in certain situations, it was better for Treva to be able to get an interview that I couldn't get, and maybe easier for me to get information that she couldn’t get," says Certain, 63. "It's tough for me, because I'm sort of in the middle of all this. I am a native, but I do understand that we live in a white world."

A portion of the film centers on Hill-Genia and other tribal members protesting the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, which they say was built atop Shinnecock graves, during the 2018 U.S. Open. The club was built in the late 1890s and employed Shinnecock laborers who, according to Hill-Genia, were too poor to turn down the work. The golf club declined to comment for this story.

"I feel so bad that they had to do that," Hill-Genia says of her ancestors. "I couldn't do anything about something before I was born. But now that I'm here I'm going to do what I can. Might not be a lot, but I'll do what I can."

WHEN|WHERE The Hamptons International Film Festival runs Oct. 10-14 at venues around the East End.

TICKETS Single screenings are $15-$40. Passes are $150-$1,750.

INFO (631) 825-0050 or hamptonsfilmfest.org

FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS

For the past nine years, the Hamptons International Film Festival has screened the movie that went on to win the Academy Award for best picture.

Could this year make it an even 10?

The festival, now in its 27th edition, is hoping to keep up its winning streak. This year's lineup includes at least two early Oscar front-runners, Noah Baumbach's divorce-themed drama "Marriage Story" and Martin Scorsese's 209-minute epic "The Irishman." Other selections, including the race-car period-piece "Ford v Ferrari," have been touted as possible contenders as well.

Also on the festival's program are live interviews with Alfre Woodard, star of the Spotlight selection "Clemency," and filmmaker Brian De Palma, who will be honored with a lifetime achievement award.

Below are several highlights from the festival. Note that most films will have multiple screenings.

JUST MERCY (Oct. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at UA East Hampton, 30 Main St.) The opening-night selection stars Michael B. Jordan as a lawyer trying to free a wrongfully convicted murderer (Jamie Foxx). Based on a true story.

THE IRISHMAN (Oct. 11 at 5 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main St., East Hampton) Martin Scorsese reunites with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci for the first time in almost 25 years — and works with Al Pacino for the first time ever — to tell the story of a mob hit man (De Niro) who may have killed Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino). Plan ahead: The running time is 3 hours, 29 minutes.

CLEMENCY (Oct. 12 at 11:30 a.m. at Guild Hall) In the wake of a botched execution, prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) begins questioning her commitment to the death penalty.

FORD V FERRARI (Oct. 12 at 8:30 p.m. at Guild Hall) American car designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) attempt to end the dominance of automaker Enzo Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966.

KNIVES OUT (Oct. 12 at 9 p.m. at UA East Hampton) Writer-director Rian Johnson ("Star Wars: The Last Jedi") gathers an All-Star cast for a murder-mystery-comedy. With Daniel Craig, Toni Collette, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and more.

JOJO RABBIT (Oct. 12 at 9:15 p.m. at East Hampton UA) In Nazi Germany, a young boy whose best friend is an imaginary Adolf Hitler discovers that his mother is hiding a Jewish girl. It's a comedy from writer-director Taika Waititi ("Thor: Ragnarok"), who also plays Hitler. With Scarlett Johansson.

SHORTS PROGRAM: VIEWS FROM LONG ISLAND SHOWCASE (Oct. 13 at 3:45 p.m. at UA East Hampton) a 46-minute program of shorts from local talent. Supported by the Suffolk County Film Commission.

CONSCIENCE POINT (Oct. 13 at 3:45 p.m. at the Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay St., Sag Harbor) Treva Wurmfeld's documentary follows the Shinnecock Nation's fight to preserve its ancestral land in fast-developing Southampton.

MARRIAGE STORY (Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. at Guild Hall) Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson play a couple going through a divorce in the latest from Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"). Also with Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Alda.

WAVES (Oct. 14 at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall). The closing-night film, already earning rave reviews from other festival screenings, focuses on a South Florida family grappling with a loss. With Sterling K. Brown and Lucas Hedges. Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults ("Krisha"). — RAFER GUZMÁN

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