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Ask the Filmmaker

Erica Scharf

Erica Scharf took your questions live on Thursday, August 2, but you can catch the recap of the chat below. Learn more about the making of Up Heartbreak Hill and the issues facing Native teens pursuing higher education.


POV: This live Q&A with Up Heartbreak Hill director Erica Scharf will begin at 2:30 p.m. Eastern (11:30 a.m. Pacific).

Leave your questions and comments now and we'll queue them up for our guest!

POV: We're just about to get started with our live Q&A with Erica Scharf. We'll be moderating your questions and comments, so they won't appear immediately, but we'll be able to see them all and we'll get to as many as we can!

POV: Also, just a reminder to all who are joining us -- enter our giveaway for Up Heartbreak Hill by August 13. We're giving out free DVD copies of the film for seven lucky winners: http://www.pbs.org/pov/upheartbreakhill/giveaway.php.

POV: Hey, Erica! Welcome to this live chat with POV viewers.

Erica Scharf: Great to be here!

POV: We thought we'd start out by sharing a few comments from our viewers:

Comment from Lisa Lirette (via Facebook)
I watched this yesterday, an absolutely beautiful film. It's so inspiring to see young people persevere, and not let troubles in their past stop them from accomplishing great things in life!

Comment from Holly Herman MacGregor (via Facebook)
My 13-year-old son and I watched this the other night. Quality programming and a touching documentary about the struggles of life.

Comment from Ken Constant (via Facebook)
Outstanding program. Great inside look inside a small group in the Navajo Nation.

POV: Viewers keep telling us how moved they were by Thomas and Tamara's stories. Let's start by talking a little about them. Out of all the students you met, why did you pick Thomas and Tamara did be the focus of Up Heartbreak Hill? What specifically drew you to them?

Erica Scharf: Thomas was one of the first kids I met when I made a scouting trip to the Navajo Nation and I immediately knew that he would be one of the kids featured in the film.

Erica Scharf: It's not just the Mohawk which of course is visually stunning — but the fact that he was incredibly well-spoken and open, as well.

Erica Scharf: A lot of kids were enthusiastic about participating in the film but were very shy and reserved on camera. Thomas was open from the beginning and very willing and eager to share his story.

Erica Scharf: Tamara was so intelligent and driven and her family was very supportive and very tight knit.

Erica Scharf: I thought that she provided a good balance for Thomas and the two of them provided a broad insight into what a lot of kids are experiencing in Navajo.

POV: So when you first set out to make this documentary, what was the story you wanted to tell? And how did that change over time?

Erica Scharf: Initially, I thought that the focus of the documentary would be running — the role that it played in the kids lives and the significance of running in Navajo culture.

Erica Scharf: But I quickly realized that there was a much broader and more important story.

Erica Scharf: Thomas and Tamara and other kids in their generation are really grappling with how to stay connected to their families and communities but also go out and pursue their own dreams and they feel like not a lot of people are listening to what they have to say.

Erica Scharf: Running is a part of that story but not the whole story. The film became about identity and what it means to be both Native and modern.

Comment from Brad102
What is it that discourages Navajo teens when it comes to going to college? Is it the quality of education they get? The lack of opportunities they see? Or does it really come down to finances?

Erica Scharf: I think that there are a lot of factors that come into play. Thomas and Tamara are both really smart but they aren't necessarily as well prepared academically as they might be at a different school.

Erica Scharf: That's not to say that the principal and teachers aren't amazing and dedicated but they are just grossly underfunded and under equipped.

Erica Scharf: But finances and opportunities are also major factors.

Erica Scharf: Thomas and Tamara both had to consider not just tuition and books but travel expenses.

Erica Scharf: For them, going to school even a few hours away meant major costs in gas money for the parents or possibly just not being able to see their families very often.

Erica Scharf: Also, a lot of schools actually don't recruit Native students because the retention rate is fairly low so there is simply a lack of information available to them.

Erica Scharf: Tamara commented that she wished she had more information about what schools there were nearby.

POV: One of our viewers has a question on that point:

Comment from Natec
Did you see any kind of effort from local colleges and CC's near Navajo to integrate Native students? Athletes or otherwise? Is there any special outreach or programs within the Rez to assist with homesickness? LOVED the doc!

Erica Scharf: Thank you! Fort Lewis College, which is where Tamara hopes to go to school, does have a Native student center that helps Native students at the college.

Erica Scharf: The reservation does offer some scholarships, as well, but I think a lot of students still feel like they could use a lot more support, especially as many are first generation college students.

Erica Scharf: UNM Gallup which is one of the closest CC's has a basketball team but no running team. Dine College, which is a Navajo junior college, has a cross country team and definitely makes an effort to recruit local talent.

Erica Scharf: Actually, Gavin Sosa, who is the former Navajo Pine coach featured in the film, is the Cross Country coach at Dine now.

Comment from NRCprograms
In providing scholarships to Native American students, we've also learned that students often need more information to help them choose a college and navigate the funding process. But we also realize it's a big choice to leave the reservation and go away to college.

Comment from NRCprograms
We like the home sickness comment. Our scholarship students say that they often feel "alone" at college. We provide mentoring for them all the way through the semester and help them get connected with other Native students at their college.

Erica Scharf: I think that's so key. One thing that Thomas talked a lot about recently was feeling so out of place at Eastern.

Comment from Jesse
Erica- What was the hardest part of the whole filming process? Where there any difficult moments along the way?

Erica Scharf: There were a lot of difficult moments!

Erica Scharf: One thing that was really challenging was trying to strike the right balance between being a fly on the way documentarian and really feeling a connection with the kids and the families and wanting to put the camera down and start giving them advice.

Erica Scharf: Being in high school is tough for everyone and these kids were so brave to allow their senior year to be filmed -

Erica Scharf: but there were definitely moments when I wanted to tell Thomas that making certain comments to a teacher probably wasn't the best choice.

POV: On that note, how did you get access to film these kids and their families? Did you face any resistance from the school about filming there?

Erica Scharf: The community overall was actually incredibly welcoming. I think there's a general feeling that Native communities are wary of outsiders but for the most part I really didn't experience too much of that.

Erica Scharf: The high school principal was so supportive and allowed us to stay in a teacher trailer in parking lot that was unused.

Erica Scharf: In total I spent about six months in Navajo and I think just being around so much and spending so much time there helped people to trust me and trust the project.

Erica Scharf: There were a few things that people asked us not to film and we were respectful of that but by and large the kids and the families were incredibly generous and open.

Erica Scharf: I think it also helped to have a tiny crew and very little equipment - so no one felt too overwhelmed by the filming.

Erica Scharf: Plus I look like I'm about 16 so I blended in really well at the high school.

POV: Do you still keep in touch with the kids and families now?

Erica Scharf: I do! In fact, I saw them all last week for screenings on the rez and at the KiMo in Albuquerque.

POV: Yes, we've noticed that Thomas, Tamara and Gabby have been making the film circuit rounds in recent weeks. How has their involvement with Up Heartbreak Hill impacted their lives?

Erica Scharf: They have! They're such celebrities now! In fact, they're having lunch with Michael Moore today at the Traverse City Film Festival.

Erica Scharf: I think it's been great for them - they've had the opportunity to travel. Gabby went on a plane for the first time.

Erica Scharf: But more than that, Thomas has said how seeing himself in the film has given him a real perspective on his life.

Erica Scharf: People come up to them after screenings and tell them how inspiring they are and I think it's great for them to realize that they are becoming leaders in their community.

POV: On that note, one of our viewers is asking about their reactions to the film more generally:

Comment from Angel
What did the kids and families think of the film?

Erica Scharf: They really liked it, which was a huge relief for me!

Erica Scharf: There are some parts that are hard for them to watch, of course, but overall they've all said, and members of the community have also said, that they feel like the film is a really honest, accurate portrait of life in Navajo.

Erica Scharf: And that was really my primary goal.

Erica Scharf: When Thomas's dad, Jazz, first saw the film, he watched it four times in a row.

POV: What about Thomas' parents? What did they think of their portrayal in the film?

Erica Scharf: Jazz was happy with it. His biggest concern was that he would come across as an alcoholic and nothing else and he was relieved to see his relationship with Thomas come through.

POV: How did your understanding of Native life change and develop while working on the film?

Erica Scharf: I think the biggest thing for this generation is that they want to have a choice.

Erica Scharf: Too often, things are presented as one option or another - stay back on the reservation or pursue a more "Western" education.

Erica Scharf: And I think they really want to be able to honor and preserve their traditions and also pursue whatever else might be important to them.

Erica Scharf: And they're figuring out the best way to go about doing that

Comment from Angel
What type of equipment/camera did you use?

Erica Scharf: I had a Sony V1U camera and one lav.

Erica Scharf: It was pretty lo-tech.

Erica Scharf: And I had my grandpa's tripod from the 50s.

POV: And this was your first feature documentary film, correct? Can you tell us a little about what that was like?

Comment from Angel
You did an incredible job!

Erica Scharf: Thank you!

Erica Scharf: It was challenging, for sure!

Erica Scharf: There were so many details, so many things to constantly be taking care of, that I had never considered and that I don't know if you can ever really learn until you're in the midst of it.

Erica Scharf: In the beginning, I financed the film myself while I was applying for grants and funding and that was a little scary, just hoping that something would come through.

Erica Scharf: But overall I feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time in Navajo and meet the kids and their families.

Erica Scharf: And of course the fact that the film ultimately wound up on POV is more than I had hoped for when I started.

POV: Well, we were so glad to have your film on our program!

POV: A little bit of gossip here -- so not only was making Up Heartbreak Hill a big step for you professionally, but we heard it was a boon for your love life, as well...

Would you mind telling us that story? :)

Erica Scharf: Haha, word gets around!

Erica Scharf: That's true - I met my husband while I was filming.

Erica Scharf: He was a third grade teacher at Navajo Elementary school and also one of the coaches on the cross country team.

Erica Scharf: He's been an incredible support - he's done so much work on the film.

Erica Scharf: He jokes that there are three of us in the relationship - me, him and the film.

Comment from Angel
Do you have any plans for future films?

Erica Scharf: I'm considering a few different ideas. I'm actually taking my (belated) honeymoon soon so I'll probably dive into something new after that.

POV: Exciting! You'll have to keep us posted.

Erica Scharf: Absolutely!

POV: We probably only have time for one or two more questions.

POV: What do you want a public television audience to take away from watching your film?

Erica Scharf: I think the most important thing the film can achieve is to open up dialogue – between kids on different reservations and between people on the rez and people in other communities.

Erica Scharf: There are so many issues these kids are facing and I don't think there are necessarily any easy answers but if the film helps foster greater understanding and more conversation I think that will go a long way.

POV: And do you have any tips for first-time documentary filmmakers?

Erica Scharf: Determination and tenacity! I know that sounds cliche but there were so many times that sheer force of will was the only thing that kept the film moving forward.

Erica Scharf: I think working with people you trust and can depend on is also really key.

Erica Scharf: I had an incredible AP Ian who helped me get the film off the ground

Erica Scharf: And Shawn (my husband) has also done so much. So, having great partners is really invaluable.

POV: Great advice. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us, Erica!

Erica Scharf: Thanks so much for having me!

POV: We're running out of time, so we'll have to end our chat here. Thank you all for joining us today.

POV: If we didn't get a chance to ask your question or post your comment, please ask again at POV's companion site for Up Heartbreak Hill at http://www.pbs.org/pov/upheartbreakhill and on POV's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/povdocs.

Comment from Angel
Thank you, Erica!

Comment from Angel
Thank you, moderators, as well!

Erica Scharf: Thank you!

POV: Follow POV on Twitter at http://twitter.com/povdocs to find out about our next filmmaker chats.

POV: Also, a reminder to enter our giveaway for Up Heartbreak Hill to win a free DVD copy of the film: http://www.pbs.org/pov/upheartbreakhill/giveaway.php.

POV: And you can win a POV Party Pack (including a film poster signed by Erica) if you host an Up Heartbreak Hill premiere party before August 9: http://www.pbs.org/pov/upheartbreakhill/premiere_party.php

POV: If you haven't seen Up Heartbreak Hill yet, you can stream the full film free on our website now: http://www.pbs.org/pov/upheartbreakhill/full.php/p>

POV: Thanks again for your questions and comments. This chat will be archived so you can replay it at anytime. Bye!


Following the story of Native American teenagers in Navajo, New Mexico, as they navigate their senior year at a reservation high school, Up Heartbreak Hill is now available for streaming on the POV site.

Watch Up Heartbreak Hill now »





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