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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 22, 2004 - Issue 113


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Seminole Filmmaker Prepares to Hit the Silver Screen

by Sam Lewin - Native Times News
credits: photo: Sterlin Harjo

Accepted into exclusive Sundance program

Sterlin HarjoNORMAN OK - A small town boy and member of the Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma has been selected to participate in an elite cinema making opportunity.

Sterlin Harjo, 24, will travel to Utah to take part in the Directors Lab at Sundance Village in Utah.

Harjo, originally from Holdenville and now living in Norman, does not sound like a guy from the country. Citing his cinematic influences, Harjo reels off a list of independent directors like Jim Jarmusch, Jane Campion and John Cassavetes, filmmakers your not likely to find in your average Holdenville video store, or most places in Oklahoma for that matter.

"I started at University of Oklahoma and then when I left school for awhile I started writing short stories," Harjo tells the Native American Times. "I was always into film, but never thought I could do it."

Victor Joseph: You gotta look mean or people won't respect you. White people will run all over you if you don't look mean. You gotta look like a warrior! You gotta look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.

Thomas Builds-The-Fire: But our tribe never hunted buffalo - we were fishermen.

Victor Joseph: You want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? This ain't "Dances With Salmon" you know!

-Dialogue from "Smoke Signals."

Then came "Smoke Signals," Chris Eyre's groundbreaking 1998 film about modern day American Indians, adapted from a novel by Sherman Alexie.

"That kind of opened the doors," said Harjo. " Before that, movies about Native Americans had to be mystical and stuff. But when Smoke Signals came out, people liked it and it encouraged people."

So Harjo wrote his own screenplay, "Four Sheets to the Wind." The draft was one of 12, out of 3000, entries accepted to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

"It's about a young guy who is Seminole and Creek," Harjo describes the film. " It's about how he goes from Point A to Point B in his life. He is with his family in a small town and they try to deal with tragedy."

That Harjo has received the attention of Sundance has not gone unnoticed in his community.

"Sterlin is one of the hottest Native American writers that has come through the ranks," said Bird Runningwater, Programmer for Native American initiatives for Sundance and OU alumnus. "He's a naturally gifted writer and gifted storyteller."

"The projects selected for the lab represent the distinctive and innovative voices of an exciting group of emerging filmmakers from the U.S. and around the world," said Michelle Satter, Director, Sundance Institute Feature Film Program. "Individually, and as a whole, the projects explore the diversity and complexity of our contemporary culture with originality, humor, and emotional truth. During the lab, the filmmakers will have the opportunity to further develop their talent and projects in a creative community that values risk-taking and bold ideas."

Harjo, meanwhile, hopes his success gives voice to other budding Native screenwriters and filmmakers.

"If anything I hope it helps. In America, there are not a lot of film and acting opportunities for Native people. I hope it will encourage people not to think their story is not worth telling," he said.

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