As a Cherokee Indian, director Heather Rae has a deeply personal connection to the work of Native American activist and musician John Trudell. In this Q&A, Rae talks about creating a record of Trudell’s work, her desire to share Native stories with a broad audience and the challenges of filmmaking on a shoestring.
Why did you want to make a film about John Trudell?
My interest in John as a subject came from having been deeply affected by his spoken word. Intuitively, I felt that he represented a kind of human being that doesn't come often, that his contribution to humanity needed to be marked historically and otherwise. His role in the movement days and his voice as an orator has contributed to the inspiration of many, not just Native folks, but people from all over the world.
What was your introduction to the American Indian Movement and how did it affect you?
I first learned of the movement and what it contributed to current policy when I was in my late teens/early twenties and starting to understand the social and political realm. It affected me a great deal when I heard John's voice as a movement leader and prophetic force.
How did you meet John Trudell?
I met him after a show he did in Santa Monica. He was performing with his band and after the show I approached him and asked if he was interested in the idea of making a film about his life and work.
Considering the scope of John Trudell’s catalog, how did you choose the poems and music featured in the film?
In the writing and research process, we began to discover that there was an inherent storyline, a trajectory of thoughts and ideas that paralleled his journey as a human being. The narrative organically developed from this, and contributes to the film as subtext more than exposition.
How did you find the archival footage used in the film?
This was a lengthy and involved process. I begin early in the film's 13-year process to seek out archival/newsreel footage from the movement days and events and anything with John. We obtained sample reel material from several old news houses, but in the end, when it came time to obtain masters, they didn't exist. Some of our source masters are literally VHS dubs of a dub. Over the years, we would hear from individuals who had material of John and had heard of the project. This was very helpful and contributed greatly to the overall tapestry of his story.
How did you get those in the film to share so much, including painful memories and experiences?
Taking time. Patience. No attachment to the result; I don't believe in the kind of filmmaking that pursues an end at any cost. I believe that the process has to be rooted in respect and integrity. Subjects are human beings, not components of an effort to build a career or something. Most of the people who contributed interviews to the film had something they wanted to say. Many have strong feelings about John, memories of Tina and a vested interest in her image being eternal.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Mainly economics. This film basically was not financed, not in the sense that we started out with a budget and went forward. There were bits of funding that came along the way and ultimately a grant from Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), which is a member of the [public broadcasting] Minority Consortia. That grant enabled us to really begin the finishing of the film but didn't bring it all the way, so the last two years of completing and marketing the film have been greatly challenging.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that the film will make a mark in history for John and the broader community and issues he represents. I hope that the current generations and those to come will have a deeper understanding of a Native paradigm of reality and what the original spirit of this land embodies. I hope the film lasts 500 years and is studied by many. There are so few films that represent the 20th century Native American, and particularly the original voice of one like John Trudell.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Any updates on what John Trudell and others in the film have been doing since then?
We began in 1992 and stopped shooting well into the editing process, which began in 2002. We completed the film in December of 2004, a matter of weeks before we premiered at Sundance. Much of the team is working on supporting the film's theatrical and outreach life. John has been traveling with the film, too. He is working on finishing his next album, Madness & The Moremes, and has a biography in the works by author Luis Rodriguez.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Good cinema and a desire to express life in this medium; it’s the only career I've known.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
I think Independent Lens is the perfect broadcast home for this film. IL has a legacy of programming provocative work and daring subjects. I don't think anyone else on the airwaves would have had us.
What are your three favorite films?
An Injury To One, Jesus Chris Superstar, Sideways
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Midwifery or creative sciences, such as physics.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Alanis Obomsawin, Merata Mita, many American films of the 1970s, Tarkovsky, Marc Levin, Barbara Hammer, Travis Wilkerson, Argentine cinema and the French New Wave.
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
Earth is Mother, I am grateful. (I have it tattooed on me in Cherokee.)
What sparks your creativity?
Fresh air; the art and brilliance of others; my partner in life and the creative—my husband, my children, my family and friends; cinema from the 1970s; my home, Idaho; land; high desert; other Native people; mountains; France, Paris in particular.
Have screening audiences asked any questions about the film that we did not?
Screening audiences ask unwieldy questions of John—deeply philosophical and theoretical questions that send him on transcendental excursions—it has been fascinating.
Read an interview with John Trudell >>
Learn more about the man and his life >>