TESINA JACKSON, Reporter
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo spoke April 10 at Northeastern State University’s 40th annual Symposium on the American Indian about what it’s like to be in the film business.
“It wasn’t until I started getting into American independent film and foreign films when I was in college that I really decided that I wanted to do this,” Harjo said. “Once I figured out that you didn’t have to make movies like Hollywood, you can make movies in your own way and say different things and unique things that really got me excited about doing it.”
Harjo, Seminole and Muscogee Creek, became interested in film during his college years at the University of Oklahoma. In 2004, he was named one of Sundance Institute’s first Annenberg Film Fellows, which is a multiyear program launched to provide filmmakers with financial support and full involvement in Sundance’s professional workshops.
It was after participating in the Sundance Institute’s filmmaker labs that he wrote and directed his first short drama.
“Once I left the Sundance writers lab and directors lab, I decided that I wanted to make a short film before I made a feature length film just because I wanted practice, and so I quickly wrote a short script called ‘Goodnight Irene,’” he said.
It premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and at other locations across the world such as Australia and Norway. Filmed in Wewoka, it focuses on two young men who have a life-changing encounter with an elder while waiting at an Indian Health Services clinic.
After Harjo wrote and directed “Goodnight Irene” he decided to tackle his first feature film, “Four Sheets to the Wind.” The film premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and has been screened nationally and internationally.
“I think the writing is really fun,” Harjo said. “I love working with actors, but directing is a very difficult thing because you feel like you’re just compromising a lot, fixing problems. Problems are always happening. I feel like a directors job is to fix problems and make sure it doesn’t fall off the tracks.”
“Four Sheets to the Wind” is about a Native American boy who finds his father dead beside a bottle of pills. After he fulfills his promise to sink the body in the family pond, the main character starts anew with his sister in Tulsa.
Harjo has written and directed several other films, including “Barking Water,” “Crooked Little Heart,” “Indian Elvis” and “They’re Playing His Song.” Most of his films take place in a Native American setting.
“I think it’s just because of what I grew up with. I’ve written stuff that didn’t have to do with Native Americans, but for the most part it’s the world that I grew up in so I think it’s important you try to write what you know and it just comes natural,” Harjo said.
Harjo has received several awards for his films, including Special Jury Recognition at the Aspen Shorts Festival and Best Oklahoma Film at the Dead Center Film Festival in Oklahoma City.
Today, he works for This Land Press creating short films and documentaries. However, he remembers that when he first started he didn’t have much income but still kept creating films because he knew that’s what he wanted to do.
“There isn’t a lot of money to be made,” he said. “If you’re going to be a filmmaker, don’t expect to make money. Expect to be broke. But if you really want to do it then do it.
“Just go out and make films because the equipment is really cheap,” he added. “Find a way to get equipment or borrow equipment and go out and just start making stuff because the more you practice and make stuff the better you’ll get.”