The thought process goes this way: If you’re going to do something, do it right and do it big time.
Timothy Ramos, Pomo, has done it in style as writer, director, co-producer (with award-winning filmmaker Chris Eyre) and lead actor for the film California Indian, an hour and a half celluloid tribal story of two brothers, different worlds, and one community.
Promoted as the first film to use Indian gaming as a theme, “It’s a reunion/redemption story showing struggles inherent on reservations today, things like sovereignty, language preservation, and tribal governance” says Ramos, who hired many Pomo tribal members with no prior acting experience and shot the film on reservation land at Big Valley Rancheria near San Francisco. “In a nutshell, I touch on a lot of contemporary issues based not only my experiences, but those of a lot of Native Americans around the country. It’s a slice of life for us.
“There are so many stereotypes and false impressions about modern day Native American culture, and so few Native American filmmakers to help tell the real stories that I was compelled to follow this calling,” says the 45-year-old suteur, who holds a masters degree from UCLA in American Indian Studies and Film. “My true goal in becoming a filmmaker is to tell stories, to educate the world about my tribe and the Native American culture in particular.
“The story of the film’s star, my role as radio host Nick Thomas, is for all intents and purposes, my story. There are nearly 300,000 urban Indians currently living in Los Angeles, who, like me, have successfully transitioned from the rez to the city — comfortable in balancing both worlds — and not losing their cultural ties in the process.”
The plotline of the film involves a big city radio host who returns to the reservation to help his brother and a tribal leader steer the reservation out of danger from a disreputable casino investor, a seedy businessman who wants to infringe on their Native American sovereignty.
Ramos’ directorial debut features contemporary Native American actors including Gary Farmer of the Cayuga nation, who has appeared in over 100 films alongside actors like Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Lou Diamond Phillips, Billy Bob Thornton and a young Johnny Depp. Co-star Farmer acts with Gil Birmingham (himself a veteran of more than 40 film and TV productions) and Julia Jones (a relative newcomer and rising star, best known for playing a member of the Quileute Nation in the Twilight Saga films).
In an interview with Scene 4 magazine, Ramos said that California Indian was in development for eight years from start to film with lots of writing, rewriting, tightening and editing before the cameras even started rolling. “In retrospect,” he told the magazine, “I wouldn’t have worn all the hats. It’s too difficult to worry about all the details and then drop everything to get into actors' makeup.”
For the past year, Ramos has been holding screenings, primarily at universities or on reservations in the Southwest and reaction has been positive, much to his delight. “There’s been overwhelming favorable response, not only in northern California where tribal members can recognize fellow actors on screen, but in southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The film is something that other tribes can relate to. As a producer, you always worry your work won’t be well received and audiences will be so quiet you can hear crickets chirp because no one is laughing, but that hasn’t happened.”
True to his desire to tell the Native story in film, Ramos is a member of the American Indian Film Institute, and travels to various locations to work with 13-to-20-year-olds in developing film projects. "Filmmaking is a collaborative effort that helps young people with problem solving," he recently told an audience at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Community. “The process involves chaos where things happen quickly and you have to think on your feet.”
The son of a Filipino immigrant father and Pomo mother, Timothy Ramos is the first member of his family to be college-educated. He began acting as an extra in The Last of the Mohicans and now owner of his own production company, Against the Wind Films. “My goal is to keep telling stories and honor who I am and where I came from,” he says, adding that another project is in the works, a true story period piece from the early 20th century mid-west that involves a number of native issues.