FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - "If you don't like the news you hear, create your own." This is the premise behind the Outta Your Backpack Media project. Outta Your Backpack is the brainchild of Klee Benally and a group of high school students, founded in 2004 as a project of the nonprofit Indigenous Action Media.
Indigenous Action Media was founded in 2001 following the desecration of Camp Anna Mae - a sacred Sun Dance site in an area of the Navajo Reservation called Big Mountain. Benally and others objected to the press generated by the incident.
"We recognized that the media was very unbalanced and biased against the residents of Black Mesa," Benally said.
"Outta Your Backpack Media was started because of the interest of young people wanting to express themselves in a positive way, especially in recognition that the mainstream press doesn't leave much room for youth and indigenous people," Benally explained.
"The Project looks to empower young people so that they can tell their own stories and realize that their stories are important, and they can make their own media. This is also an alternative to a lot of the negative things that young people can be involved in, like drugs and alcohol," he added.
But one of its most important messages is that everyone has a story to tell, and anyone can make a movie, Benally said.
In 2007, Benally helped to open Taala Hooghan, a space in the Pine Grove Shopping Center that houses Outta Your Backpack Media. Film students stream into the community to find sets. This may be a low-budget operation, but it has already made a huge impact in the national film festival venue.
"In 2006 and 2009, we screened at the National Museum of the American Indian's Film and Video Festival," Benally said. "We've also screened films at Echo Park; ImagiNative Film Festival in Toronto, Canada; The Southwest Native American Film Festival, The Heard Museum, the Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe; and the Monument Valley Film Festival."
OYBM's most recent victory was at the 2009 National Museum of the American Indian's Film and Video Festival, screening three films, Save the Peaks: Sacred Sites March, Stick Mania, and Graffiti: Art or Vandalism.
Maria Colón's column in the New York Foundation for the Arts concentrated heavily on OYBMedia.
"The most compelling work at this year's festival, however, was produced by Native youth working with Outta Your Backpack Media and Longhouse Media, two non-profit youth advocacy groups that teach media literacy and production skills in Native communities," Colón wrote.
"Stick Mania stands out as particularly well crafted given its nonexistent budget....This is what makes the work produced by OYBMedia alumni so compelling: it demonstrates a sophisticated level of production on par with older, more established, and better funded filmmakers and video artists," Colón added.
OYBMedia's summer workshop ran from June 16 through June 18, where 20 youth (three as mentors in training) and five mentors produced five films.
Students were divided by experience and age - initially four groups were formed, however afterwards other youth who had already done films and were more experienced joined into a fifth group.
There is no one writer - the group writes together. Sometimes a director may morph into a cameraman; actors from one scene does the film and sound for another scene. Everyone has the chance to participate in each job.
Finally, everyone takes part in the production of the film.
Deidre Peaches and her group produced a music video featuring a graffiti artist, a hobo and someone who witnessed the tagging of "Bob." Peaches explained at the screening of the film that the group had also interviewed participants in the downtown mural project, and that when finished the film will include the positive side of graffiti artists and their work.
An incredibly beautiful film depicting a young boy's fantasy of being a pirate was also screened by filmmaker Donovan Seschillie, who took care of lighting for the film.
Sheepcamp tells the story of a young Navajo boy living in Flagstaff who enjoys spending time talking to his Cheii about his life on the reservation. One afternoon the boy sits in a park, snacking on canned lunchmeat and drawing his grandfather and his sheep-and amazingly the cartoon sheep come to life. The movie concludes with the boy asking his grandfather if he could spend the summer at sheep camp-and riding off into the sunset with his uncle in a brilliant red truck with two blue water barrels in the back.
Camille Tso (13 years old, and OYBMedia's youngest mentor), who appeared prominently in the made-for-television epic "Into the West," has enjoyed being on the other side of the camera. Tso explained the storyline of her group's film, The Sun Sets on Twilight-which highlights the controversy over the Twilight film series that used a spray-painted non-Native actor (Taylor Lautner) to play the Jacob Black character, a member of the Quileutes Tribe. (Flagstaff actor and dancer Nakota LaRance read for the part.)
"It started with Chihuahuas taking over the world and using celebrities as their minions," Tso laughed. Then, moving on to the popular Twilight film, Tso said that "Jacob Black would be like (pantomiming a paw slashing the air) 'Raaaaahhhhhr, I'm a werewolf,' and he would be controlling Edward Cullen-but then we found that [our script] had no message to it.
"So then I told about some stories that I learned from a friend of mine, who is Quileutes; she told me about how Summit Entertainment (The company that filmed "Twilight") made over four million dollars and they only paid the Quileutes Tribe a thousand dollars to film on their reservation, so we wanted to make a story because Jacob Black is supposed to be a Native, so we kind of wanted to overdramatize that, while making it funny and serious at the same time."
The controversy highlights one of the frustrations of being a Native American actor-sparse roles, stereotypical characters-and the fact that Native actors are passed over for roles in mainstream films-such as FBI agents, waitresses, race car drivers, or astronauts.
All of this could be changing however-as more and more young Native Americans produce their own films.