When Chloé Zhao set out for the Dakota’s in 2011, she had an idea and a brief five-page film outline.
“I worked on that script for 30 drafts over three years,” Zhao said over the phone as snow fell in Denver, her city of residence.
Unable to find funding for a script that leaned mostly on Lakota nonactors from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, she scrapped it.
She kept the story’s main character, but drew from the well of reservation life – writing the script the morning before a shoot – and its various characters to guide her film through the universal question of how do you leave the only place you’ve ever known?
Sapaatqa’yn Cinema, a Native American film festival organized by the University of Idaho Native Indian Studies Program, will show Zhao’s “Songs My Brother Taught Me” at 7:25 p.m. Friday as part of the two-day festival dedicated to Native American filmmakers and actors.
As an undergraduate in political studies, Zhao said she was interested in social justice but became disenchanted with the funneling of graduates into cushy government jobs.
“I didn’t want to be part of the system,” she said.
She looked toward filmmaking as an avenue where she could make a difference.
During her third year as graduate student in film at New York University, the Beijing-born Zhao said the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was making news for issues with high rates of teen suicide. Already pondering a film set in America’s plains, she headed there with a producer and started knocking on doors in search of unique characters to weave a fictional story around.
Zhao said there is something universal about the idea of leaving home, whether that place is a small American town, Chinese village or, in this case, a Native American reservation. There’s a fallacy afoot, Zhao said, when people perpetuate the belief that it’s as easy as simply leaving a place destitute of opportunity.
“I hear that a lot – ‘this is America and we all have opportunities,'” Zhao said. “That is a very ignorant thing to say and a very simplistic understanding of how our country works.”
During her first trip to South Dakota, Zhao said she felt a heightened awareness to the camera across the reservation, as ABC had just filmed a “20/20” piece at Pine Ridge. But unlike the customary journalism format, Zhao said her film gave the native youth a chance to act as dynamic characters on screen, and not just as the subject of disparaging works.
“It’s fiction,” Zhao said. “That means they can express themselves through a character and that’s safer and more interesting to the community.”
She said more opportunities for acting are needed in areas with marginalized and underrepresented youth.
“In a community like this they don’t get enough theater, film or any kind of artistic expression through schooling and other opportunities,” she said.
Broadening the definition and portrayals of Native Americans on screen is central to this plodding film, as it was to Zhao’s filmmaking process.
The movie is centered around brother Johnny Winters (John Reddy) and sister Jashuan Winters (Jashuan St. John), as Johnny considers leaving the reservation in the face of his father’s death but fears leaving his sister behind.
Reddy, a recent highschool graduate, won Best New Actor at the Bend Film Festival. St. John, an eighthgrader, took home Best Actress at Red Nation Film Festival.
If You Go:
What: “Songs My Brother Taught Me”
Where: Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre, 508 S. Main St., Moscow
When: 7:25 p.m. Friday