‘Reel’ Natives: A film festival comes to Shiprock

Native filmmakers share the spotlight

In 1939, film audiences watched as John Wayne jumped on a horse and galloped through Monument Valley in “The Searchers.” The film introduced beautiful red-rock Navajo land as the quintessential background for the Hollywood Western.


Filmmaker Nanobah Becker shoots “6th World” in Monument Valley, Ariz. The film was selected for the third season of Futurestates television and for screening in the Rock with Wings Film Festival in Shiprock, N.M. Courtesy photo.

Seventy-three years later, Diné filmmakers have taken control of that presentation from behind the camera lens. Contemporary auteurs of the independent cinema industry, they are the youthful indigenous cadre of artists who write, act, produce, direct, teach, market and distribute their own work.

Native American film artists and their movies are in the spotlight at film festivals from NYC at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Now, this summer, the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center will host the first “Rocks With Wings” Film Festival in Shiprock, N.M.

“The Phil,” opens its doors June 7, 8, and 9 to rez film aficionados finally able to watch indigenous film in a Dinetah venue.

Graham Beyale, founder of the sponsoring group, Northern Diné Youth Committee, says he has wanted to make a festival since he participated in a film workshop at Shiprock High School. He was a sophomore then when he met Melissa Henry and Nanobah Becker. The filmmakers explained the power of movies as a vehicle for telling your own story.

Beyale volunteered throughout high school at The Phil, learning digital videography while recording all the performances there. He began to envision himself as a filmmaker.

He attended UNM to study media arts. “It was wonderful, but when I came back to Shiprock I decided to stay a few years to do something that would bring about some positive change in my home town. I thought I could do a film festival because that’s what interests me. But I found it was pretty difficult to do on my own and, well, the needs in my community were bigger than just a film festival.”

Instead he formed NDYC with a group of friends. The committee has grown into a major community organization, offering projects that empower youths between 19 and 29 to be leaders who serve and inspire pride in the nine chapters of the Northern Navajo Agency.

In Shiprock, NDYC has built a community garden, cleaned up a vacant lot and provided seating and picnic areas in the shade under their “Chei Cottonwood Tree.” They build volleyball courts and sponsor dodgeball tournaments, hold art workshops and provide activities for youth during school breaks. When they need money NDYC members sell pizza and Navajo tacos from a roadside stand.

After collaborating with the Healthy Native Community Partnership program and a digital storytelling workshop, they went out into nearby schools teaching the technology to the students. They do all of this through volunteer commitment and organizational meetings every Monday night at the Dropn Center without fail. No excuses.

Last winter the group built a drive-in theater in Nizhoni Park, across the highway from their headquarters. Navajo Tribal Utility Authority provided salvage electrical poles, but the group dug the holes, placed the poles upright and stretched two huge canvas drop cloths between them.

“We let people know on Facebook when we’re screening a movie. People just drive in and park. The admission is free, but we charge a little bit for the hot chocolate.”

The group became the vehicle to launch the first film festival. “We are ready to tackle the project,” Beyale said. “We feel there’s nothing we can’t do.”


Hi Ho Silver, Mr. Ed and Trigger, meet Ross, the Navajo-speaking horse and lead actor of the enchanting short narrative, “Horse You See,” produced by Red Ant Films. In the movie Ross explains what it is to be a Navajo horse. Filmmakers Melissa Henry and Alfredo Perez, recent winners of the PBS Online Film Festival, are screening “Horse You See” at Rocks With Wings.

In a PBS interview, Perez advises hopeful media artists to tell their own story, not to copy what they’ve seen. “Post-modernism has its limits. Eventually you run out of movies to quote and pay homage to, and your audience is exhausted, hungry for new and different things. So just go with your own idea and make your own movie.”

Henry says that technology is a critical influence in the increasing strength of Native film. She recently received an artist residency at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, to work on “Mosi Lizhini” (Black Cat), the story of a Navajo cat who saves the universe. It will be Red Ant Films’ first feature movie.


Producer-director Rick Derby began his movie about the Shiprock High School Lady Chieftains basketball team in 1989. It was a 13-year process to get it finished. But when it was released in 2002, “Rocks With Wings,” the film-festival namesake, screened in film festivals throughout the U.S. and Canada, garnering awards and recognition for the film and the players.

It began as a simple documentary of the remarkable story of the Shiprock High School championship seasons. But, Derby said in a telephone interview, “I thought I was shooting a movie about a successful basketball team. Instead it became a study of transformation, overcoming barriers.”

Coach Jerry Richardson landed his first teaching job in 1980 at Shiprock, at that time a depressed Navajo community that he thought had little to offer an African-American man. But the universe had a plan for Richardson. After three months on the job, he survived a near-fatal car accident, chose to stay and was handed the losing women’s basketball team.

The film won four awards in 2002, including the HBO Documentary Feature Prize at the the Urban World Film Festival, second place at the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Awards, second place at the First People’s Festival of Montreal, the Jury Award for Best Feature Film, and Visionary Award from The Native American Film & Television Alliance Film Festival.

As Beyale clicks on the YouTube trailer for the film, he says, “I don’t know if I can get through this without the same emotional response I always have. The lessons in the story are so powerful. It’s timeless inspiration and why we named the film festival after the movie. We’ll play it every year.”

Even though the story portrays a message of optimism about layered issues of race, culture, gender, and economic class, Derby admits it received some backlash in a rejection from Sundance that year.

“It is a film about a Navajo community made by a Biligaana (white person). But the racial discrimination in the movie is crosscultural,” he explains.

The movie will screen on Saturday evening during the festival.

Real role models

The 90-minute documentary, “Run to the East,” from Moxie Pictures and directed by Henry Lu, opens the festival on Friday night. It recently won Best Sports Film at the Red Nation Film Festival in L.A. It follows three Native American high-school runners throughout their senior year. The students run to earn scholarships that will take them off the reservation.

Dillon Shije, Sandia Prep High School and Zia Pueblo, Chantel “Tails” Hunt and Thomas Martinez, both from Navajo Pines High, are real. “Watching Tails, Thomas and Dillon’s story gives the kids on the rez role models and a chance to share their dreams,” says Lu.

Filmmaker Nanobah Becker is living her dream, working in Los Angeles most of the time now, but she grew up in the Eastern Navajo Agency. Her festival submission, “6th World,” is currently showing on television in “Futurestates,” a science-fiction series that highlights the works of seven cutting-edge indie filmmakers in its third season. The online site is also hosting a viewer voting competition for the audience award.

In Becker’s episode, Navajo Astronaut Tazbah Redhouse is a pilot on the first spaceship sent to colonize Mars. A mysterious dream the night before her departure indicates there may be more to her mission than she understands.

“There definitely are a growing number of Navajo filmmakers,” Becker said in an email, “and our audience is ever growing as well. It’s great to have a festival like this on the reservation so that our films are accessible to our Navajo audience.”

Eyes on Shiprock

Opal doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s the character in Ramona Emerson’s movie who is beaten up by the town bully and then takes matters into her own hands with the help of her girlfriend.

One of four writer-filmmakers selected to participate in the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Filmmakers 2010, Emerson worked with industry professionals in a five-day intensive workshop. Now she intends to bring Opal into the fold of the feature film.

Emerson’s awards and recognition are many, but, she says, “Right now in the world of cinema and media, while many strides are being made, there are still huge obstacles to overcome for the roles and images of women. Opal is an extension of my upbringing with my grandmother, mother, aunts and cousins, their strength.”

She is one of 30 writers selected to work with The Milagro at Los Luceros, in northern New Mexico, where she is finding the support to finish the feature-length script and fully realize the character of Opal and the two worlds that she lives in.

“The inaugural Rocks with Wings Film Festival is an exceptional concept,” she says. “In fact, the NDYC group is showing our leaders in Navajo government what they should be doing. Our leaders forgot about the people, they forgot about us and are more concerned about their own political careers and how many sheep they have.”

Emerson also sent the festival a selection of films co-produced with her husband, Kelly Byars, through their company, Reel Indian Pictures. “I told Graham he could show whatever of mine he wants. It’s the first year and we want it to grow into a major festival.”

Beyale is already planning for 2013. He posted a call for submissions for the “N8V Youth Film Comp!”, an awards competition at the Rocks With Wings Film Festival, next year.

“Film is not just entertainment,” he writes, “it is one of the most powerful vehicles to the human mind. … You have talent, but what messages are you are going to deliver to people?”

From June 2012.