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(Many Paths)
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Take The Last Ride Home
by MICHAEL SMITH Tulsa (OK) World Scene Writer

Director hopes the Sundance crowd goes 'Barking' mad for his Wewoka

Sterlin Harjo vividly remembers riding in an ambulance with his grandmother, of thinking that she might not live much longer, of her stuffing a note into his hand that begged, Don't let them hook me up to any machines, I want to die at home.

For the young Tulsa filmmaker, whose work embraces the concepts of home, family and the American Indian experience in Oklahoma, this emergency was the life experience Harjo needed to finish writing his script for "Barking Water."

Wewoka (which means "barking water" in the Muscogee language) goes Hollywood next week when Harjo's film has its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Thousands submit their films to the renowned annual festival; this is Harjo's third film to premiere there since 2005.

"I had wanted to make a film about an older couple, to explore that relationship and show that it is just as complicated as those of younger people," Harjo, 29, said. "It was sort of this idea that as we grow older, we realize we're the same people, but we just get more worn down, I guess. I didn't really know in what context that story would come about.

"I dropped it for a while. I didn't know where it was going, and I just felt very disconnected from it. But when my grandmother went to the hospital, it personalized things for me. I picked up the script again."

The result of three years of on-again, off-again writing is "Barking Water," a road movie involving an older, estranged couple with a stormy history. But now, Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman, an Oklahoma artist) is dying and looking to make amends with family members, and he'll need a favor from Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek) to complete this task.

"This idea clicked," Harjo said, "of a hospital being like a prison for someone who wants to go home to die, and (my grandmother's experience) started forming this idea of someone breaking a person out of a hospital, so I merged that idea with my idea of an older couple with a tumultuous past."

The low-budget independent film was shot in less than three weeks in Ponca City, White Eagle, Pawhuska, Holdenville and Wewoka last March, using four actors with various degrees of training and "a lot of people I plucked from my life and put in my film," he said. Employing a "guerilla style" of filmmaking kept the process fresh and fast.

"It was a road movie for which I wanted to make the trip with the characters, so we shot it in sequence," Harjo said. "It was a style that was right for this film."

Parting the 'Water'
A Holdenville native and member of the Seminole-Creek tribe, Harjo's concentration in film and video studies at the University of Oklahoma led to a film fellowship at the Sundance Institute.

His 13-minute short film, "Goodnight Irene," about three people who come to know one another in a day spent in the waiting room of an Indian health clinic, was an honoree at the 2005 Sundance festival.

His first feature film, "Four Sheets to the Wind," followed with a world premiere at the 2007 festival in Park City, Utah. Shot largely in Tulsa and some southeastern Oklahoma towns, the story of a young Indian man leaving the reservation received an acting award in the drama competition.

While critically well-received and embracing universal themes among its Indian characters, "Four Sheets" was not released in theaters (a Tulsa premiere was held at Circle Cinema), but did receive a DVD distribution deal and has screened at film festivals around the world.

When Harjo introduces "Barking Water" to an audience of 600-plus on Jan. 17 at Sundance, he hopes to attract the kind of financial investment that allows the next step: "Barking Water," coming soon to a theater near you.

"I was really nervous about 'Four Sheets' when I got up on stage to introduce it, but I'm not so nervous this time," he said. "I think the film really works well, and I think people are going to enjoy it. It's a more accomplished film, I think. If people really like the film, that's important."

Harjo realizes that the financial side of filmmaking creates a symbiotic bottom-line for him as an artist.

"I want the film to do well because I've got other stories I want to tell," he said.

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