Sierra Ornelas Interviews Nanobah Becker, October 2008 NYC
SO: How many of the Native American Film and Video Festivals
have you attended? And in what capacity?
NB: This will be my third, in March of '09. I attended
the 2003 film festival; I was actually on the staff then. My short
with Blackhorse Lowe's Fifth
World in the 2006 festival, and this time I'm a selector.
So three totally different roles each time.
SO: You've watched a lot of works this week.
NB: Yeah, we've been watching a lot. I really love Shane
which is a feature length narrative film. For me as an urban Native,
I really related to the story and the characters, their issues
and their quests to find themselves in an environment away from
their reservation. I thought that the cinematography was beautiful
and the editing and the music. As a piece of cinema it was really,
SO: Filmmakers are getting youngerdo you feel like
there is a new wave of Native cinema, and even Navajo cinema as
NB: I definitely see a [growing] technical competency
in the work. The level has definitely gone up, and there's more
work. A lot of the films that we've seen have been from youth
training programs, or other training programs, out in smaller
communities, so that's creating more and more content. I definitely
think there is a movement of indigenous people using media, film,
video, to express themselves.
For Navajo stuff, what's interesting about that is that a lot
of the people coming up, just on their own, got a camera, had
an idea for a film, and went out and shot it. I think that's really
cool, that these kids, growing up with so much media, TV
now kids from a really young age are engaged in the Internet,
so it is only natural that they should be taking part in making
their own works; it's natural that Navajo should be making content
for themselves and for the community. To me, it is totally like
its own unique kind of cinema. There's just always people coming
up and doing stuff, and a lot of time it's pertinent to a Navajo
experience or where they come from in relation to their identity.
SO: The youth films are almost like punk music, they're
just so raw and so fresh
.It almost feels like [for] some
of the younger filmmakers, the concept of telling my own story
is, like, "Well, of course."
NB: I think that's a particular issue with indigenous
people or people who have been oppressed, and their stories are
known. [For example] Atom Egoyan, who's an Armenian Canadian filmmaker,
was speaking about a film that he did about the issues around
making a film about the genocide, and he was saying how his people
have the desperate need to be heard. And it's the same way, I
think, with indigenous people and our history, because we're so
absent from the mainstream, from the history books; our point
of view isn't really taught. I think a lot of the work that has
come up so far has been, "Now we get a chance to tell our
own story and what really happened, and we're going to educate
the outside people."
But I think what's interesting about a lot of the Navajo work
is that it's not really existing to educate an outside populous
about what's going on in the Navajo Nation. Look at one of Shonie
De La Rosa's short films about a corrupt Navajo politicianit
is so for the communityor the younger people making music
videos and things that would probably appeal to a wider audience,
but it's not necessarily meant to be like, "This is me, and
you need to recognize me and you need to hear my story,";
it's "I want to engage in this media and tell my story whatever
it is." It could be something historical, something [they]
have to express, or a comedy about whatever. So that's another
component of this media making for people in our own communities.
SO: Right. I like the bravado of "I'm just gonna
make a movie for my community and if you get it, that's great."
Some of them are very much trying to educate, but others are very
much, "This is just who I am and you can kind of take me...."
NB: Like Melissa Henry's Horse
You See, there's a lot of that workI'm thinking
in terms of Navajo culturebecause we have radio, which is
pretty much entirely for Navajo community, or even our own stories,
which date back to wheneverit's for our own communities,
so it's the same now with film and video.
SO: Has participating as a selector for the festival shaped
your opinions on the current state of Native cinema?
NB: I didn't get to see many Latin American works, I wish
that I had seen more up to this point. It seems like there's more
people making stuff, from even more remote areas; there's a lot
from way up north, from different Inuit villages. Of course, some
areas have been doing work a lot longer, and it is really interesting
to see how they've progressed the quality of the work that is
coming out of there.
SO: Is the bar being raised?
NB: I feel like we are looking for something beyond the
ethnographic or educational type documentary, which I think has
been phasing out for a while. It seems like there were more, even
five years ago. Now films have more of a personal touch; more
directors are developing who have a point of view, a style and
something very specific they want to express in the way that they
make the film. I see individual artists emerging.
SO: Who would you say is emerging now?
NB: Like I said, Shane Belcourt is great; I really respect
SO: What about the film connects with you?
NB: Well, the female character in the film was talking
about how she didn't know how to pray, and that her grandmother
had gone through boarding school and was essentially scarred from
that experience, so those traditions didn't really pass down.
I had the same experience; my mother went to boarding school,
so it is even that much more immediate. I see the damage that
has caused, and I understand why she kind of pushed me and my
siblings in the direction of more assimilation.
We're in the aftermath of that whole experienceI think
a lot about when I'm an elder and when people and kids come to
me and want some kind of wisdom or knowledge, what am I going
to pass down? There is very little I feel like that I know, very
little that I do know. So it's those questions of identity, and
I know some people hate talking about that or acknowledging that
it is an issue. It is very real for menot that I don't know
I am Navajo, and I am enrolledbut it is much more complex
than that, I think.
SO: In most films, lost urban Natives go back to the reservation
and they talk to an elder and they figure it all out in a summer,
and then they are reborn as a sort of uber Native people. What
I liked about Tkronto
is that it conveys something like what you're saying, "I
know I am Navajo." There is something inherent about just
being Indian that you can trust, I think, when you are an elder.
But [when you are younger] you don't know how to trust that because
you don't feel like you have knowledge.
NB: And I think it has probably been that way for a really
long timebut a lot has been lost in the recent past
not knowing how to speak my language, that is really an important
thing. I want to go back and learn it so I will be able to pass
it on, and just even understand how that knowledge affects how
I view the world, how I think about things. It is true, [Navajo]
is very, veryit's totally different from English.
SO: I try to explain to people that Navajos have a very
sarcastic language; I always think it's a real, real caustic language.
NB: Yeah, it's hard to understand; a lot of the humor
just doesn't translate.
SO: Do you find any connection to the male character in
NB: There's a part where he is talking about wanting to
go to an Indian summer camp, like boot camp, where they would
be able to go out and learn how to hunt and swim in a lake and
be kind of wild.
SO: Yeah, maybe we can start that.
NB: Definitely, definitely.
Image credits: Nanobah
Becker - photograph by Othell Begay; Nanobah Becker - photograph
by Tim Warner