Producer Jeff Spitz knows that his film The Return of Navajo Boy had a strong impact and influenced real change by reuniting a Navajo family, and it triggered an investigation into uranium contamination. The film also premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and has screened and won awards at film festivals internationally. This month his film is featured on Vision Maker Media's "40 Years. 40 Films. 40 Weeks" project during the week of Jan. 31.
Why is it important to have films created, written and produced by Natives in today's media?
As Standing Rock shows, Native people are a vital part of American democracy and yet they have been largely invisible in the media until this demonstration. The demonstration has revealed the power of corporate media to spin social issues and the determination of elected officials to stop dissent even if it means mass arrests for civil disobedience. While Native people have always been a central part of the American story, their diversity has always been ignored. The distinct voices and visions of Native people tend to be missing in our mainstream media, or when they do appear, they are almost always defined by non-Natives. The Standing Rock encampment and ongoing demonstration could be a turning point where Native identities emerge in leadership positions and connect Native ideas and values to other sectors of society which are looking to Standing Rock for clues about how to resist the fossil fuels and carbon dependent industries. Without films created, written and produced by Natives, there is only a dominant popular media culture. Indigenous points of view are distinctly different and deserve to be heard in all their variation and richness. Native talent and real collaboration gives voice to hidden stories.
Why do you think people should tune in for
"40 Years. 40 Films. 40 Weeks."
People who are looking for authenticity, new points of view and entertainment that they have not already seen will find a remarkable world right under their noses. It has happened in the past. The "40 years. 40 Films. 40 Weeks." project is a remarkable collection of stories and people love stories. If properly promoted in mainstream media viewers will check it out and appreciate the unique stories in the collection. I think followers of
This American Life
Humans of New York
, would all find this series compelling.
Q. What aspect of working with Vision Maker Media (VMM) was the most worthwhile or rewarding for you?
A. Being a panelist for NAPT's (now Vision Maker Media) open call.
Including me as a funding panelist helped me understand the organization (NAPT) and become a more effective film teacher and advocate. NAPT brought
The Return of Navajo Boy
to South Africa where the opportunity to meet South Africans led to a new indigenous project.
Q. How does VMM provide support to you as a filmmaker?
A. Finishing funds helped our team add six minutes and put the film on PBS for a national audience. PBS leverage helped us push the feds into investigating uranium contamination and forcing the Justice Department to re-open a case involving compensation for a former uranium miner featured in our film. A week before the broadcast, the Department of Justice (DOJ) approved the former miner's claim and notified me directly. That began a 15-year history of leveraging this story to dig out the truth and force Congress to clean up radioactive contamination in the Navajo Nation. We realized that media has real power. And we have continued to apply it through webisodes showing what happened next and leading up to a billion dollar payout from a corporate contaminator that we exposed in our film. A little support at the right time can make a huge difference.
Q. What one experience would you want audiences to take away after viewing your film?
A. It's a powerful experience to participate in a family reunion. Any family reunion. The Navajo family reunion in our film binds up a lot wounds and heals a lot of pain, but it also provokes audiences to reflect on the incredible price Native American families have paid in America's rise to become the world's leading nuclear power. The more people learn about that the more they want to prevent that from happening to other families. The reunion is an experience that brings tears of joy and grief and it has inspired many people to make a difference in their lives.
Q. How do Vision Maker Media films help serve Indian Country?
A. VMM films educate people and give Native filmmakers a way forward into careers.
Q. What advice would you give to filmmakers beginning their careers?
A. Think of filmmaking as you would think of writing and storytelling and playing ball, not as something rare and only available to the rich. Ask "what conversation do I want to have with the world?" Use all your skills and build teams for each project. Do not obsess about your camera and editing equipment - that's only part of the equation. The goals are to tell a compelling story, to build community and to involve the next generation (and older ones) as much as possible. The best stories are timeless,timely and intergenerational.