Filmmaker Charles Dye moved around a lot growing up, but always in the West: New Mexico, California, Texas, Arizona — and it was in this last place where he went to high school and befriended members of local tribes, sparking a more personal interest in Indian culture. After traveling the world and then earning a Master’s in film from Montana State University, Dye focused on making documentaries. His work includes Last of the Gum Men (about Guatemala’s few remaining chicleros, who extract natural gum from trees), A Cat Called Elvis (about the relationship of snow leopards to Mongolians and Westerners), and Before There Were Parks: Yellowstone and Glacier through Native Eyes.
Now comes Indian Relay, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS Monday night, November 18 at 10 PM (check local listings), about a lesser-known, but unforgettable, Native American tradition: a challenging form of horse racing that takes place in Rocky Mountain states. Dye spoke with us about the challenges and rewards of making of this film.
What led you to make a film about Indian relay racing?
Molly Murray, the youngest daughter of Carol Murray, a Blackfeet elder I was interviewing for [previous film] Before There Were Parks: Yellowstone & Glacier Through Native Eyes, suggested the topic to me for my next film. Once I learned a little more about it, I immediately saw Indian relay’s potential to bring a much-needed, positive, up-to-date and exciting view of American Indian life to mainstream public TV audiences.
When were you first exposed and connected to Native American culture and people; who were the first Native Americans you got to know?
I ran with Indians in high school, literally, on cross-country and track teams. So I spent hours on the bus with Native friends. They had a different sense of humor. It was quiet and for the most part kind and I really appreciated it. Our coach was Native, too, and he was great. He always made me feel somehow worthy, even though I was the slowest runner on the team!
And did you have any familiarity with and interest in horse racing before this project?
I grew up riding horses, though not as enthusiastically as my younger sister, whenever we would visit the ranch my grandfather managed in Wyoming. I was also born in Ruidoso, New Mexico, about a mile from the Ruidoso Downs, where they have the “The World’s Richest Horse Race.” So horses and I have always been around each other, to some extent. But Indian Relay is really not a film about “horse racing” to me. It’s about family (which includes horses and dogs and cats and little cousins and lots of time spent taking care of all these animals and relations). And it’s also about athletics, meaning running hills, by yourself, as night falls, dreaming about winning the big meet, which is an apt description of my life growing up.
What impact do you hope Indian Relay will have?
I hope this film helps foster respect in audiences who might normally avoid sad “Native American” stories.
So how did you narrow it down to the three groups of people you focused on in the film?
This is a very tough question to answer, for it involved making some hard choices. But in the end it had to do with balance. Since we focused on three different communities, we had to have a team from each community. And then each team, or person on that team, had to represent a different aspect of the sport of Indian relay. For example, Myles represents youth, ambition, and naiveté (at first), whereas Carol, his grandmother, represents wisdom. Kendall and Zack represent professionalism and Lance and Punkin represent brotherhood, hard luck and rising above hardship. It’s more complicated than that in the final film, and there’s other stuff in there as well, but those were the main points that [editors] Katie Gilbertson, Andy Adkins, and I initially hammered out for what to cut to.
How did you gain their trust?
I met most of the people involved with this project while making Before There Were Parks. That project (which won two regional Emmys) showed people that I could be trusted to accurately translate “Indian” stories to “mainstream” TV audiences. After that, I spent a year by myself, simply following the relay circuit before I started filming this story with a proper crew. By the time the real crew showed up, most of my subject’s reactions were: “Finally!”
This is a dangerous sport (as we see in the film). While the riders seem to genuinely care deeply about the horses, as part of their tradition, how much do they worry about the safety of these animals, and did you find yourself worrying about the horses or the riders while you were filming?
As Scotty Osborne says, the horses do get hurt running relay, but not nearly as often as the (human) relayers do. Relayers care about their horses in almost the same way as they care about their kids. Anyone who has a dog will understand this feeling. And even more than border collies, horses love to run. The most dangerous race on the relay circuit is the Sheridan (Wyoming) Rodeo, where the races are run by non-Indians, and the crashes of relay are made worse by rules making the teams stand out in the track. The Sheridan organizers say this is so the people in the stands can better see the race, but it felt wrong to me and I hope Kendall Old Horn is successful in his campaign to have a general boycott of Sheridan, until those un-safe rules are abolished.
What were some of the other challenges you faced in making Indian Relay?
Mileage was a major challenge — I drove about fifty thousands miles making this film. Also, editing, because our story spanned nine months and more than seventy relay races (with sometimes twelve cameras covering a single race). We had literally hundreds of hours of footage to cut down to just one hour.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
The stories of the other teams we worked with, such as the Kirkaldies and the White Calf and Mountain Timber relay teams. Relay is so rich — this film only captures one thin slice of one season of it.
Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Everyone in the film has now seen it — while surrounded by their families. We did a big “premiere tour” in all the communities where the film was made (over 600 people showed up in Ft. Hall alone!) and the response was phenomenally positive everywhere. I couldn’t be happier, prouder, or more amazed.
You didn’t initially start out as a filmmaker. What led you to eventually become interested in making movies? How did all your travels and other experiences inform your filmmaking interests?
I always wanted to be a filmmaker. But I came from a small desert town, and I thought: “Who am I to make movies, I’ve not been exposed to anything, I don’t know anything.” So I traveled to learn. And I worked to live and learn. But filmmaking has always been my path in this life, even before I was making films.
The photography in the film is really striking and sharp — what sort of camera crew did you have and how did you go about achieving the way it looks? You used some stylish elements, too, from the font to the graphical segues. Was that to give it the look and feel of a sports documentary?
Before we ever started filming I had a general meeting of all the crew who I hoped would one day help on the project, and I showed them the scene from [Rob Stewart’s documentary] Sharkwater where the guy is in the hospital, and then scenes from [mountain biking doc] Life Cycles, and I told them for this project I wanted a create a view of the Rez unlike anything anyone had ever seen before, both more human and more gorgeous. I didn’t want clichés like tattered American flags or cars on blocks, because I’d grown up in the rural West, and I knew how hard it was to have pride in a dusty hometown, far from anywhere.
Indian Relay is about sports heroes — and so yes, that did influence our graphics choices. It took Andy Adkins and I months to settle upon the final typeface for the main title — it had to be just the right mix of modern, rural, proud, and tough.
I should note that I had amazing cinematographers join me in this project, mostly Westerners themselves, folks who’d gone to my same graduate school, now working for National Geographic and the BBC as contract shooters. We used lots of DSLRS with expensive glass, GoPros and of course Phantom and RED cameras… as much as we could afford, and I begged for lowered day-rates from every shooter and every company we rented from. Everyone got paid making this film — which I’m happy about — but we really stretched our production dollars to have the final film look like it looks.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I actually enjoy the occasionally bitter adventure of making a film — at least I like it more than not making films. Of course I must first love the story and believe in its potential to foster a better world. If so, then the rest is easy. (Ha!)
What are your three favorite films?
First, all the films on Independent Lens, plus add the ones below, then choose any three: 475, Project Homecoming, Spellbound, Waltz with Bashir, When We Were Kings, Grizzly Man, Buena Vista Social Club, The Piano, The Pillowbook, Trainspotting, Napoleon Dynamite, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Yojimbo, Totoro.
Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Be patient, find great people to work with, and always move forward.
Last and possibly least, what do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
Anything hot after a cold night sleeping in your car.