Growing up just outside New York City, I was a frequent visitor to the American Museum of Natural History, and it was there that I was first introduced to Native civilizations. Dakota and Plains tribesmen posed wordlessly, trapped behind Plexiglas — permanently a piece of the past. My suburban high school had not a single Native kid in a student body of 2,000, and the only reference to modern-day Native society I can recall hearing pertained to casinos. Almost everything I saw and everything I learned was presented within the context of “long ago.” Up Heartbreak Hill was born of the realization that many Americans are largely unaware not only of cultures abroad but, perhaps even more alarmingly, of communities within our own borders.
When I first began pre-production, my plan was to make occasional trips to the Navajo Nation throughout the school year. But, once I was there, I had to stay. Navajo is so utterly unlike anywhere else I’ve been, and yet every time I drive down that long stretch of road from Window Rock, I’m hit with the feeling I’ve never left. Navajo is a place of striking contradiction. On one hand, it is the embodiment of New Mexico’s state nickname, the “Land of Enchantment.” Red mesas jut into endless blue skies; wild sage grows in abundance alongside the road. On the other hand, it is a community stricken by poverty, full of dilapidated buildings, rusted swing-sets and crumbling homes.
I think it’s this juxtaposition that creates such a conundrum for Thomas and Tamara and for their friends and classmates. Their decisions are dominated by the push-pull of a place whose very earth they have been connected to for hundreds of years, but whose socio-economic realities make attaining even basic standards so challenging. This dilemma lies at the heart of the film, and being a casual visitor to a place so remarkably still would never have enabled me
to capture the nuances of the story I believe needed to be told.
So, I set up camp in an unused single-wide trailer in the high school parking lot, which meant the kids literally passed by my front window on their way to class. Such proximity was invaluable, and the community welcomed me at sporting events, dinner tables and birthday parties.
My intention was always to make a film about individuals and to allow their stories to explore the larger issues surrounding modern Native life. I met Thomas and his dad, Jazz, at a Gallup track meet, and I knew instantly the film would center on them, and on the complex dynamics of their relationship. Once filming began, the project expanded to include Tamara; her story provided an essential counterpoint to Thomas’s and helped create a fuller portrait of their generation’s experience.
It was important to me that Up Heartbreak Hill did not become a film about resilient kids from an underserved community overcoming obstacles and rising to success. It’s not that those stories aren’t important — but they have been told and told again, and audiences have become accustomed to the formula. I wanted to afford Thomas and Tamara the chance to speak for themselves. They cannot be forced into any single mold, and I didn’t want to shortchange them for the sake of convenience. They are not always victims and they are not always heroes, although they have had to deal with more adversity in their 18 years than many others have. But, they are also shockingly perceptive, empathetic and accepting, and their observations strikingly self-aware.
In essence, they are teenagers — and their story is, in many ways, a universal one. They struggle to find their families, to leave their families, to navigate the choppy waters of the high school social scene and to chart a path to the future. And they do so from a very unique place. They are Native Americans, and they are figuring out what that means to them; they are contemporary Americans, and they are finding their place in a world that hasn’t always treated them kindly, but which is rightly theirs and to which they very much belong.
I hope that Up Heartbreak Hill will help forge a greater understanding of a dynamic and rarely glimpsed American community — a nation within a nation — whose current history, tribulations and triumphs are widely ignored.
— Erica Scharf, Director