Director Sterlin Harjo grew up hearing a story about his grandfather’s mysterious disappearance in 1962. Pete Harjo crashed his car on a bridge in Sasakwa, Oklahoma and the Seminole community began a night and day search for his body, bringing with them old songs of faith and hope.
Harjo is returning to Sundance Film Festival for the fourth time to premiere his first feature-length documentary, which intertwines the story of his grandfather and the complex origins of Creek hymns. The hymns’ stories are rooted in line singing from the Scottish Highlands, slave songs from African Americans, the Trail of Tears and continue to connect the Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole people in times of faith, grief, hope and happiness.
Harjo (known for his films Barking Waters and Four Sheets to the Wind as well as his work with the 1491s) spoke with Indian Country Today on how the documentary film “This May be the Last Time” came about and what it’s like to be a Native filmmaker.
This is your third feature premiering and your fourth time at Sundance. How has the experience of it all changed for you?
I know how it goes now. So, I'm not as nervous, but it's always exciting. I've been there a few times, but I've also been there as a juror, so I know what to expect, at least.
How would you describe your documentary?
It's a documentary about song and the style of singing that we've sang forever. It's really hard to explain in a couple of sentences. It follows the story of my grandfather who drowned in a river in 1962, but it’s really a documentary about the kind of songs my tribe sings and the stories that are wrapped up in them.
How did this idea come together for you?
I just always wanted to do a documentary, but I didn't know what it would be. Then, I ran into this man named Hugh Foley. He's a professor at Rogers State University and he started talking to me about these songs. He knew a couple and it blew me away because you just don't see a white person who knows these songs. So we started talking about it and he started telling me the history, kind of where this specific style of singing originated.
The style of singing was actually brought over by Scottish missionaries. It’s a style of singing that was adopted by us and made into our own. There were songs that were written on the Trail of Tears that we still sing today.
How is the title connected to the film?
It’s the name of a song. It's a complicated history of the songs. Its music history wrapped up inside these songs. These songs are wrapped up in American blues and American history, they're part of the story just that they've been left out of the story.
Did you learn anything new or surprising when you were working on the documentary?
I learned tons of pretty surprising stuff. Things like the stories of songs, when they were written, how they were written and what they were used for. It was also cool that I learned about my grandpa a lot. I learned about him, the people who looked for his body, and the story surrounding his death.
The grandpa story wasn't initially going to be as big a part of it, but as I was filming it a lot of the people I was interviewing about these songs happened to be there when they searched for my grandpa, so it just kind of organically happened.
Do you have any advice for young Native filmmakers?
Get a Bachelor's degree. Get a college education, so you can teach as a fallback plan because there's no money in it. Native films make no money; definitely have another source of income.
This is something I didn’t do, by the way. I got accepted into the Sundance Filmmaker's Lab, so I just left college and started making movies.
How was that experience?
It's very selective. It changes people's lives. I can't imagine making films without going to Filmmaker's Lab. It was like boot-camp.
And it's nice know there are people who support your films. I mean the film industry could care less about Native film. It's so low on the priority list. But, Sundance has always been looking for young Native talent and storytellers. It made my career happen.
What’s it like to shoot a film in Oklahoma?
It's hard. There's not a lot of support here. There's not a lot of money or funding. But it's a place I want to tell stories about. I'm telling stories about a specific people, a specific tribe, which are located in Oklahoma.
It's still unreal that there's no tribal funding; that tribes don’t try to fund stuff. If you're a white actor or someone with a name, and you approach a tribe, they will totally fund the film. But if you're a Native person they won't. It's just kind of a funny deal.
And with the 1491s stuff, everyone loves our films, tribal chairman, council people, all over the country. They want us to keep making them. But we do them for free, we fund ourselves. And you know they want you to make them so they can be entertained, but they don't want to help support artists, they don’t want to help support filmmakers and storytellers.
Is that just your experience with your tribes or is that across the board?
Oh, I'm not talking about just my tribe, I'm talking about everybody.
The Chickasaw Nation is great. They’ve definitely done exactly what I'm talking about. Other tribes aren’t doing anything. Even the Chickasaws, it's a very controlled way of doing it. The tribes will support art, but it's almost like there's no free trash.
If you try to do anything that's a little challenging, then it's hard to get funding with any tribe. I'm sure if you're making a film that's very happy, and makes everyone look good, you'd have better luck, but that's not truthful.
What are you hoping people take away from it?
I have no control over what people take away from it. I just hope they like the film. It's a spiritual experience watching the film. It feels a bit like you're in church. Hopefully they enjoy it.
This May be the Last Time premieres Sunday, January 19, 2014 at 2:30p.m. at the Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, Utah. To read more about This May be the Last Time, and to find a schedule of the festivities, please visit Sundance.org.