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Documentary Profiles Native Students as They Consider Their Futures

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For her first documentary Erica Scharf, of Oceanside, New York takes an in-depth look at three Navajo teens struggling to walk in two worlds in Up Heartbreak Hill.

“The film is about three high school seniors on the Navajo Nation,” Scharf told the LI Herald. “I followed their senior year, as they decided if they were going to stay on the reservation or leave, and what the implications of that decision would be for their families, for their community, and the pros and cons of staying versus leaving.”

She filmed Thomas Martinez, Tamara Hardy and Gabby Nakaiduring the 2008-09 school year—each face their own struggles when it comes to their families and staying or leaving the reservation.

Thomas’s mother thought it would have been best had she given him up for adoption when he was 5 months old and he hasn’t seen her much since. His aunt, Delphine Gatewood, has been raising him since his grandmother died in a car accident.

His father, Jasper “Jazz” Martinez, struggled with alcoholism until a car accident put him in a coma for three months. “From then on he was a totally different person,” Thomas says. But Martinez had to relearn even the simplest of tasks. “He had to learn how to walk, to write, to speak,” Thomas says. “It’s like working with a child… he’s not one of my responsibilities because he doesn’t want me to see it like that, but he’s someone I would care for and I would do a lot for.”

In the documentary, Martinez can be seen cheering his son on at track meets. Running is important to Thomas—he saw it as his way out. “I want to go to college, come back here and make a difference for my nation,” he says. “I’m shooting to be state champion this year.” He didn’t win state champion, but he triumphantly won the last race of his high school career, was named an All-Area All-Star and received a scholarship to Eastern New Mexico University. He studied there for his first year then went to University of New Mexico (UNM) Albuquerque and then to Diné College, a tribal college in Tsaile, Arizona, where he attends now.

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Tamara Hardy, who served as the senior class president, struggles with leaving her family behind and her parents struggle with letting her go.

“I want to stay here, but at the same time I want to leave,” she says. “Getting off the reservation to get a degree, I think that would really help me, but my mom and my dad they want me to stay close to home.”

She was accepted to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and she did, where she ran with the track team there for one season before returning home. She instead took classes at UNM Gallup to be closer to home. She will be getting her associate’s degree this year.

Gabby, who is featured in a separate 20-minute video, is interested in photography but gets discouraged when no schools have a photography program and her parents begin fighting. Her confidence waivers, but her boyfriend Alex supports her. She gets accepted to UNM Gallup and takes classes there. Even her father and boyfriend join her. She is currently taking time off, but plans on returning in the fall.

The negative attitudes about what will happen to these students are pervasive throughout the documentary, but their teachers and the high school principal hope they’ll make it.

“We hear it from everybody, ‘Navajos are drunks and dropouts,’” Thomas says. “Some people think we’re not adjusting and I think that’s just because they expected us to change our lives so much. Our ancestors had to deal with white people coming here and trying to adjust to their ways of life. People are still struggling trying to catch up.”

Watch the full film and other related clips on until August 26.