Melinda Janko, a filmmaker with Fire in the Belly Productions, has been following Elouise Cobell around the country for years, documenting the latest developments in a legal saga that just won’t quit. With Cobell’s passing on Oct. 15, the director and producer now explains some of the challenges she captured the “warrior women” facing dead on—and she shares some of the difficulties she now faces herself in getting her project, Cobell v., completed so that a mainstream audience can begin to understand.
Indian Country Today Media Network: How did you feel when you found out Elouise had passed away?
Melinda Janko: I was devastated. I had been in touch with her family on almost a weekly basis. I know her son, Turk, quite well, and the people in her office. I had just checked in with them on the Monday before, and they told me that she was holding her own—no better, no worse. I was then traveling to Syracuse, and got the news in between flights. I was absolutely devastated.
The progression of her cancer happened so quickly—
Oh, it is such a blow to this world. I was able to pull it together, and speak to a class of fifty at Hamilton College on Tuesday morning in honor of Elouise. I know it was her strength that got me through that.
Can you tell us about how you first met her, and how your relationship developed?
It’s funny, because I have been working on this film for seven years. I found an article in Mother Jones magazine about the broken trust, and could not believe that in the 21st Century, our government was still treating the Native American community with such disrespect. I was just appalled by that, and I attempted to call Elouise. At the time, she was working with a German production company, and so wasn’t interested in another documentary. But I was so passionate about getting this story out to America that I pursued it in other directions.
What did you do?
I contacted John Echohawk immediately, because of his organization’s [the Native American Rights Fund] involvement in the case. I spent a good amount of time talking to John early on about this case, and he has become an advisory board member for the film—and is now a good friend also. It took me over a year to eventually meet Elouise, and I met her at one of the Native American conferences in Albuquerque. I met her there, and we were going to try to connect and sit down and talk during that conference, but she was a very busy woman with a jam-packed schedule. So, it didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen—so she said to me: Do you mind if we meet out on the Blackfeet Reservation where I live? So I did. I went out in the middle of winter in January to meet with her. It was an unbelievable meeting. We ended up starting filming at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in September 2004. That was our very first day. Elouise was there marching with [her lead lawyer] Dennis Gingold. Today we have 120-plus hours shot, and 85 percent of our production is completed.
When did you last see Elouise?
This last January, she received an award at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco. They had contacted me about using some of my footage for the award ceremony, and invited me out to attend. I was able to have dinner with Elouise. At that point, she had been very, very ill with pneumonia, but she did not know about the diagnosis of cancer. I was concerned about her, because she told me she had never been sick in her life. The last time I spoke with her was on the day that the court approved the settlement.
What do you think about the fact that she fought all this time—sixteen years—and never saw any financial benefit from her battle against the U.S. government?
It breaks my heart. It’s quite ironic. If I heard Elouise say this once, I heard her say it a hundred times: Every day, elders in Indian country are dying without justice. And to think that she did not see the justice served, and this is still in the appeals process—it just breaks my heart. I’m so disappointed that things came to a halt. Just very, very sad.
Did Elouise share her feelings with you on the pushback that has come from some in Indian country about the scope of the settlement?
Yes, she talked about it, and she was very disappointed. I think she did the best that she could, and she did a great job because no matter how you look at this, it is still the largest settlement ever awarded against the government.
How difficult has it been for you to narrow the focus of your film when the case involves hundreds of thousands of Indians—not all of whom agree on the best way to settle? How can you be sure you’re telling an accurate story?
The fact that I have John Echohawk on my advisory team, and Elouise Cobell has been there right along. They all know and have read my film treatment of the story. They know that I have interviewed the government, and I've kept in constant touch with them every step of the way. This film has been done with complete consultation. I also spoke with Keith Harper, one of the lead attorneys; he’s also a friend. So I’m quite sure that they are aware of where this film is headed.
What has been the biggest lesson you’ve learned in doing the film?
I think one of the biggest problems with this is that it affects a minority of people, and mainstream America is just not aware of this lawsuit. And I was shocked when I found out that it was the largest lawsuit filed against the government, yet wherever I traveled, I talked to people, and I would say that 9 out of 10 did not know about the story. But they all knew about the successful gaming tribes. I found it was a double injustice—that the media was under-representing and under-reporting this case, and over-reporting the stories about successful gaming tribes. I like to say of this film that most Americans have never set foot on a reservation, so Fire in the Belly Productions is bringing the reservation to them.
What is it going to take to get the film completed?
We need finishing funds for the post-production. I have been on the travel circuit, pitching the film all over the country, and in Europe. We’re looking for sponsorships for the film. When the finishing funds come in, we will be on our way to the film festival circuit. I have already met with Robert Redford twice, and he’s interested in me bringing it to Sundance.
Elouise and I were actually invited to pitch the film at Sundance in 2007, and it was also a very interesting meeting because we pitched to a room of about thirty investors who had never heard of this story, but they felt that Indians should fund the film. Which was, again, I think a backlash from the gaming angle. There were easily thirty people in that room who could have funded this film ten times over, and they chose not to. They thought the Indians should fund it.
Have you reached out to tribes?
Yes, and we are supported [by several tribes].
How likely is this film to get completed in the short term?
Well, the short term for a 90-minute feature film that is of the scope and size of this story, we need at least 6 to 9 months for our post-production process. So my goal is for the fall of 2012.
Do you think, whenever this film is released, that it will be able to get the attention of the mainstream, and help the mainstream pay better attention to Native issues?
I really do. I have been approached by so many people at conferences I’ve attended, especially by law professors who want to show this in their law schools. I have made this offer public: Every Indian community will be given a copy of this film to use in their cultural centers, however they choose to use it—I want this out there. They are going to be studying this case in the law schools for centuries. I think with that, there is a huge opportunity for education of mainstream America and also in the U.S. education system.
How are you going to say goodbye to Elouise in terms of the film?
I am very sensitive to the sense of loss that the whole country and people all over the world are feeling toward this wonderful woman warrior. I am still thinking about how to handle it. I am a friend of her son, and I feel like I need to show my respect for her and the family.
It has to be so difficult for you—it has taken so long to film, has been so hard to fund, and you want to be sensitive to the story as well.
Turk said to me on behalf of his mom the last time I met with him that everybody in Indian country believes in me and believes that this film is going to be powerful. I can’t tell you the weight on my shoulders to do justice to Elouise.
For more information on the film, including sponsorship opportunities, visit http://cobellvmovie.com/