Anti-drunk driving commercials target New Mexico Natives 'Gary Farmer plays lead role in Chris Eyre-directed spots'

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – “There is an enemy among us,” and that enemy in Indian country is drunk driving. It’s also the opening line for a public service announcement that features a Native grandmother who reaches for the car keys of a man stepping out of bar with the intention of driving home.

The two spots – one 30 seconds and the other one minute – will air on New Mexico television stations starting Dec. 19.

Last year there were 194 driving while intoxicated-related deaths in New Mexico alone, and Natives made up 25 percent of that demographic, said G. Michelle Brown-Yazzie, Navajo/Oglala Sioux/Salish-Kootenai, and the state’s tribal DWI coordinator for the Department of Transportation.

“The rate of Native Americans that die from drunk driving is three times higher than any other ethnicity,” Brown-Yazzie said, referring to nationwide statistics.

According to sources, this is the first PSA made that targets a Native audience on the topic of drunk driving.

Lonnie Anderson, Apache and the PSA’s creative director, formed what he called the “Indian dream team.” When he and producer Akash Khokha met to brainstorm the project, they decided to e-mail a copy of the script to Chris Eyre, the director of “Smoke Signals,” “Skinwalkers” and an array of other popular Native films.

Eyre enthusiastically assumed the role as director and even arrived one week early to prepare for the shoot. “When Chris said yes, we were jumping up and down,” Khokha said.

Khokha credited Eyre’s close attention to details and for eliminating stereotypes of Indian people as his directorial strengths. “He’s absolutely professional and very creative. And he’s one of the best directors I have ever worked with,” he said.

Subsequently, the team asked Native actor Gary Farmer, who was working in nearby Santa Fe, if he would appear in the production. Farmer said yes.

“To have Gary in it was a real pleasure because I think he’s someone that’s looked up to as an actor and as a person in our Indian community,” Eyre said.

The two have a working history together, as Farmer played Arnold Joseph, the father of Victor in “Smoke Signals.”

Eyre made small, yet significant, changes to eliminate stereotypes. For example, he exchanged the beat-up pickup truck in the ad for a newer model, which he said was more in line with what young Indian people drive today. “My goal was not to show any stereotypical perceptions, especially when it’s an Indian actor,” he said.

Farmer plays a man who walks out of a bar, not intoxicated but not fit to drive, either. Before he can jump into his truck an elder, Adelina Fernando-Sanchez, Laguna, takes his car keys. Next, a group of people step forward and form a circle around him. Eyre and Anderson said the circle represents the community coming together to stop one of their own from making a poor choice.

“We wanted to do a piece that wasn’t a shaming spot, and to encourage the community to come out,” Anderson said. “It’s all of our responsibility to come together in the community.”

Fernando-Sanchez, 67, said she was surprised when she was asked to play the elder who grabs Farmer’s keys. She credited her children and grandchildren, who frequently work as movie extras, for encouraging her to audition. “I was surprised when they picked me,” she said. “It was difficult at times, but interesting and fun.”

Fernando-Sanchez had an extra role in the blockbuster miniseries “Into the West.” However, the brief role she played in this PSA hit close to home: the pain in her voice was evident when she briefly described losing her 27-year-old son to the perils of alcoholism.

Filming the PSA took less then one week and wrapped up on Dec. 12. None of the actors speak during the ad. Producers have an ideal about who they will select to do the voiceover upon final editing, but didn’t want to reveal a name until the individual committed to the project.

Khokha said the filming was made possible with the collaboration of his company, Experience It All Productions, and the local talents of Southwest Productions and Vaughn Wedeen Creative Inc. He added that there were numerous other contributions made by companies abroad. Tim Hanrahan, creative director and part-owner for Wieden and Kennedy – the creators of Nike commercials – wrote the PSA. He was also central in writing the scripts of past American Indian College Fund commercials, according to sources.

“If we just save one life, it will be well worth it,” Khokha said.