I was honored to sit on the panel, “BUILDING COMMUNITY AWARENESS THROUGH LONG FORM DOCUMENTARIES” at the AFI SilverDocs Festival this year.Moderated by Doug McKenney, Executive Producer of CPB’s Public Awareness Initiative, the panel also included Sandy St. Louis, Project Manager for Frontline’s Dropout Nation, Jacquie Jones, Executive Director of the National Black Programming Consortium and Executive Producer of DC Met: Life Inside School Reform and Tanishia Williams-Minor, the high school principal featured in DC Met. The conversation centered on public media’s multi-year initiative, American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, designed to help communities across the country address the high school dropout crisis.
After presenting several clips from my film, Up Heartbreak Hill, which chronicles the senior year of three Navajo high school students, I spoke about my experience in Navajo, New Mexico.About 1,600 people presently live in the town – and 30% have high school diplomas.Thomas, Tamara and Gabby – the three kids whose stories I followed – all have a strong desire to go on to college and I think this is key to their success in high school.For them, graduating is a necessary step to a larger goal and it is this long-term aim that drives them and sets them apart from many of their peers.
Still, the challenges facing them and their classmates are numerous.They are largely first generation college students and while their families are supportive they are often lacking crucial information and resources to help guide their children through what can be an overwhelming process – one that involves not just submitting college applications but applying for scholarships and financial aide, as well.Finding the time and money to visit college campuses is also difficult and students often have limited information – and sometimes misinformation – about the options available to them.
The Navajo community is also plagued by the legacy of BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) schools, which in many instances cut students’ hair and forbade them from speaking their native language.The teachers and staff at Navajo Pine High School are wonderful and profoundly dedicated to their students – in many cases going well above and beyond their duties to ensure their success – but the memories of the BIA schools are deeply ingrained and one of the many scars they left is a mistrust of the education system.
Many of the obstacles facing students on the reservation are not unique; my fellow panelists discussed a number of the same issues that also affected the schools they were working with.And all agreed that setting students on a long-term trajectory – whether the end goal was trade school, the military, community college or university – was key to their successful completion of high school.The hope with all of our films is to increase awareness and understanding about the problems that exist and to provide opportunities for students, parents, educators and community members to come together to discuss ways of addressing them.POV, which will broadcast Up Heartbreak Hill later this month, has created a discussion guide and lesson plans, which can be used by schools, libraries, youth groups and community organizations.
Thanks to SilverDocs, Doug, Sandy, Jacquie, Tanishia and everyone who attended the panel for helping to facilitate such an important conversation.
I recently attended the , where my film, “Up Heartbreak Hill,” had its Canadian premiere.The festival was amazing – it ran from Oct. 19 – 23 in Toronto and was a whirlwind of films, panels and networking opportunities.
The festival kicked off with a screening of “On the Ice” and “The Country of Wolves,” which were both phenomenal.At the opening night party, I had the chance to chat with a number of Khoi-San filmmakers and artists, who were there as a part of the delegation representing South Africa’s indigenous community.It was fascinating to learn about their struggle for rights and recognition, and the role that the arts have played in that journey.
The next day, “Up Heartbreak Hill” screened to an audience that included community members, fellow filmmakers, industry professionals, and even a local high school class.The response was overwhelming and the questions posed during the Q&A were thoughtful and insightful.I was incredibly proud to have brought Thomas, Tamara, and Gabby’s stories to a wider audience.The screening not only helped generate excitement about the film’s upcoming broadcast premiere on POV but also resulted in invitations to screen at the LA Skins Fest and the inaugural Vancouver Indigenous Media Arts Festival.
I attended a screening of “Shirley Adams,” a powerful and deeply affecting film by Khoi-San director Oliver Hermanus, as well as the Documentary Pitch Competition, which featured four finalists each of whom presented their idea to a panel of industry leaders.It was interesting not only to hear about their projects, which varied widely in both subject and format, but also extremely useful to listen to the panel members’ extensive feedback.
After a great lunch with NAPT Executive Director Shirley Sneve, I attended the Funder/Buyer/Producer Micro Meetings, which were unbelievably beneficial.I had the opportunity to meet with representatives from a number of distribution companies and other outlets and discuss my film with them.The chance to make those contacts was invaluable.
Other highlights included screenings of “Samson and Delilah,” “Wapos Bay: Long Goodbyes,” and “The Creator’s Game,” which was a timely film about the Iroquois Confederacy lacrosse team whose passports were denied by the UK en route to the 2010 games. The indigenous arts community in Toronto is thriving; the numerous screenings and receptions afforded me the chance to meet many of my fellow filmmakers and hear about their varied backgrounds, experiences and stories.
Thanks to George, Shirley and the NAPT team for helping make the trip possible.