Director Billy Luther talks about working with an introverted subject, keeping Navajo traditions alive and the controversial sheep slaughter.
What led you to make this film?
I began writing a film based on my mother’s life growing up on the reservation and winning the Miss Navajo title in the 1960s. When I started doing some research on the Miss Navajo pageant, I met with former title-holders and knew I wanted to put a hold on the script and do this documentary. I knew it was going to be a film about the women who won the title, but also I wanted to tell the story of a young woman and her journey to win the title.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The most challenging part of making the film, besides not having funding for over half of the production of the film, was my decision to follow a quiet, shy, introverted subject. It was about the second time we traveled to Crystal's home in New Mexico, my crew and I started to get a little nervous with how she was going to be on camera. What was a decision on my part—to follow a quiet character—began to become a question, not only with my crew and I, but also with potential funders. Usually characters or subjects are very outspoken and a little loud. But I never saw a shy young woman before on screen or on television be a central character. That is what drew me to Crystal.
And when Crystal arrived at the pageant, I then saw something turn on in her. I saw her become more driven and determined to win the competition. I then was a little more relieved when I saw this unfold. It was a tricky risk that I took, and it paid off. You see her blossom into a woman by the end of the film, and that is something that was unexpected.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
I think being a son of a former title-holder eased a lot of their worries. And it was also important that I was a Navajo filmmaker, not an outsider making a film about the Navajo woman. I think we are tired of other people trying to tell stories of Navajo people.
How important is the Miss Navajo pageant in keeping Navajo traditions alive?
It’s one of the events on the Navajo Nation that showcases the role of women. Many people on the reservation don't think that Navajo traditions are "dying" but thriving. Others feel like the language can be used a lot more. One of the questions I get as I travel with the film is if the language is still used at home. It certainly is. My grandmother, for instance, doesn't speak any English and only uses Navajo.
The sheep butchering competition in the pageant is a very controversial one. Some think that the practice is a private one and should not be used in a competition. But I feel it is important that the young women know how to butcher a sheep if they win Miss Navajo. It’s an important part of our culture, but also know it’s not the ONLY part of who we are. It’s one of many skills a young woman should know.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
In the festival version—which doesn't have to be edited for television—there is a scene of the contestants getting a beauty consultation. It’s a scene that shows the awkwardness of the main subject, Crystal. She also thinks that scene is pretty funny.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
People react differently. Some people feel it’s an important film about women. Others think of it as an unexpected story of a contemporary Navajo family. Others feel it’s a language in crisis film. I let audiences feel what they want to feel.
The only thing I do let people know is that it’s only ONE story of a young Navajo woman—Crystal shouldn't represent all Navajos or stories from the rez. But people often don't think that way. They continue to think all Navajos are the same and that we live the same on a daily basis.
I did get a few people who wanted the documentary to focus more on boarding schools. Others wanted to know where the men were in the film. It’s called MISS NAVAJO, not THE STORY OF NAVAJO MEN AND WOMEN. I also had a guy who wanted to know why I didn't shed light on diabetes on the reservation.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I want to make films with humor and entertain people. I don't make historical films on Native peoples or the struggles Natives go through. Other filmmakers can make those films, and I support those stories. But I don't make those films. I like to look at an event or issue through an unexpected way. Here it was culture through a beauty pageant. If I didn't tell stories that way, I would become bored very easily.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I knew I wasn't making a commercial film early on. But I knew the story was important. I kept the film under their radar. I've always wanted to do a project with public television, and to have their support of my vision and of me as a filmmaker was important. If I didn't have that support, I would have moved on.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I had to pass on collaborating with a couple of friends and their projects. I wish I was able to juggle both, but when I wasn't shooting MISS NAVAJO, I was writing proposals and trying to find funders.