‘Touch the Water’ opens Nov. 3, stars Hopi actress Pershlie ‘Perci’ Ami
On Nov. 1, “Touch the Water,” starring Hopi actress Pershlie “Perci” Ami, will premiere in Tempe, Arizona. On Nov. 3, the film will roll out into 12 theaters around Arizona and New Mexico, next to Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
“We’re excited because we haven’t opened a film on 12 screens before,” director Travis Holt Hamilton said of Holt Hamilton Films. “For us it’s a big deal but then you take a step back and look at Hollywood and there are like 3,500 or more screens.”
Hamilton’s six films have all been Native-based or had Native actors, and he compared his latest “Touch the Water,” at 94 minutes long, to Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour epic, which deals with the Osage tribes murders in the 1920s.
While the Scorsese film had a budget of around $200 million, Hamilton had precisely $47,005 and not much more for post-production, he said.
“It’s just a huge deal for us to even have a film in theaters right now,” Hamilton said. “It’s more and more an impossible time to get an independent film, with no (big) names in the theater so I feel pretty blessed to be able to have 12.”
Director meets his star
Ami resides in Laveen, Arizona, and has lived in the Phoenix area for around 30 years, but still has a house on the Hopi reservation with her husband that she gets back to every few months for ceremonies.
For 23 years, Ami has worked as a motivational speaker, conducting workshops to help elevate tribal organizations. For 10 years, she has been a “Grandmother” with Rainbow Journey, traveling the world with Indigenous elders bringing messages of oneness, peace and understanding.
In 2019, she was giving a workshop on lateral violence in Indian communities at an elderly conference, where Travis Hamilton’s film “More than Frybread” premiered.
“I watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, this is so good,’” Ami recalled. “It talks about lateral violence, about competition and hurting each other and jealousy, so I was like, ‘I could use this in my presentation,’ and since the whole conference had just viewed it, it would be an easy reference.’”
Hamilton just happened to be sitting at the same table as Ami, and she got permission from him to use examples from his film in her presentation. Hamilton watched Ami’s presentation and she made an impression on him.
“She was presenting and she had the audience going, and was very interactive, was totally putting on a show,” Hamilton said. “And I’m like, ‘I got to remember this lady because she’s performing right in front of us and doing a great job.’”
Hamilton told Ami he was thinking about making a film about the elderly, and Ami asked what she could do to help.
In San Diego, California, Hamilton got the inspiration he needed for the idea of the film. He saw an elderly lady being wheeled out to look at the ocean waves on a boardwalk, a look of utter contentness on her face. The premise came to him: An elderly Native woman who regretted never touching the water because she was so afraid of the ocean’s mightiness as a child.
Hamilton remembered Ami asking to help at the conference, and had her come take a photograph to be the model for the poster for a casting call.
“If you’ve ever tried to cast a movie looking for late 70-80-year-old Native women actors, it’s kind of hard,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton asked if Ami would audition for the main role of Daisy.
“I was like ‘okay, that could be fun,’ because I’ll try anything,” Ami said. “So I came and met up with him and I did a horrible job. ‘Cause I kept wanting to change the lines, ‘cause I’m like, ‘this isn’t how a grandma would speak.’ And so he said, you need to just stick to the lines…”
That audition led to another audition, and then a screen test.
“I kind of recruited her,” Hamilton said. “She kind of put on a little front like ‘Oh I don’t know, I don’t know.’ She’s a performer that likes being in front of people, so it wasn’t too hard. ‘Like, quit tricking me you really want to do this.”
Ami remembered getting the call that she got the part.
“I was like, whaaat? My conclusion was that I was either the only one that showed up or I was really that good. I choose to think that I was really that good,” Ami laughed.
Hamilton gets grief from other filmmakers for choosing non-actors in leading roles, but chooses to take the risk anyways.
“It’s totally a risk. Everything hinges on the lead actor,” Hamilton said. “Back in the 90s even early 2000s there were 3-4 Native actors that anyone knew about…that you would just see over and over again whenever there was a Native part.”
Hamilton served a two year mission for his church on the Navajo and Hopi reservations from 1996 to 1998. Part of the reason he made his first Native film, Turquoise Rose, in 2007, was to rid some of the negative stereotypes he found about people he lived with whom he found to be hard-working and kind.
“I was looking to give people opportunities at the same time I was making an opportunity for myself, no one else was giving me,” Hamilton said. “You know, I had doors open and things here and there and stuff too so I’m not going to say it’s all bootstraps. But as I was giving opportunities to others, their first time in a film etc., I was taking opportunities as well. You know, I had never directed a feature film or produced or shot a feature film.”
It’s that element of giving back and giving opportunities to first-time Native actors that Hamilton says has been key throughout all of his six films, and he hopes he is also widening the playing field for Native actors in general.
“At one time I counted up the first time actors that had speaking parts and it was over 100,” he said.
Hamilton also involves the reservation community he often films on as much as he can, hiring background extras from the area, working with tribal council to get certain permissions and buying local.
“That’s part of what I really enjoy is just that interaction and building those friendships,” Hamilton said.
In the end, Hamilton did end up taking some of Ami’s advice on the script and she is even credited with a writing role for the film’s Internet Movie Database profile.
“Travis is very culturally sensitive,” Ami said. “Even though it’s not a primarily Native film, there are things that he wanted to make sure didn’t overstep anybody’s boundaries. I did make suggestions. I know that he listened to me. We kind of worked together.”
Ami said there was a steep learning curve when it came to being on a film set, but the acting part of it was easier than she thought.
“It’s the story about getting old, and that a fall can change your life. And losing friends as you get older. That’s a reality,” Ami said. “This film covers all those aspects. So as far as being relatable to the film, that was very easy. I guess that made it easier for me to play the part. Because I lost a lot of friends to Covid, and I lost a lot of elder friends just because they got injured and then the healing process is much more difficult.”
Covid shut down Hamilton’s production early on.
“Within a week, I lost six months of work and so Touch the Water is kind of my Covid-baby, I guess you could say,” Hamilton said.
Though shooting was shut down, Hamilton didn’t stop working on the film, story boarding the entire script of over 800 pictures, making props including a book Daisy reads and her cane, which required over 20 hours of beadwork.
“I was trying to say, ‘what can I control, that I can move forward on this film to make it one step closer?’” Hamilton said. “And sometimes it wasn’t much but … it builds up that determination that we’re going to make this film happen. Every day Covid went on longer and longer, it’s just putting that fuel in the tank that you’re going to be able to pull from to get that film finished.”
Four years later, Hamilton can breathe a sigh of relief that his film is finally out.
“I’m excited. Once we have the world premiere in the theaters I know it will be a lot of closure,” he said. “And then hopefully the audience reaction is good and then I don’t have to cry more.”
Hamilton will continue to make Native American themed films or use Native American actors in his films, and says his next one will be a “story of forgiveness.”
“Touch the Water” will play in select theaters in Arizona and New Mexico beginning Nov. 3.
Find more on “Touch the Water” and see showtimes at holthamilton.com/touch-the-water.html.