PARK CITY, Utah - As a filmmaker, Sterlin Harjo, Creek/Seminole, said he wanted to make films that told true, compelling stories that just happened to be about American Indians.
Harjo's ''Four Sheets to the Wind,'' which premiered in January at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews, tells a story of human healing and caring: attributes that Harjo said binds all people together.
''I wrote this project four years ago and it was developed with assistance through the Sundance [Screenwriters] Lab in the feature film program,'' Harjo said. ''It's very exciting and it's one of the best festivals to premiere your work. We're in competition and that's a great place to be.''
In the opening scene of ''Four Sheets,'' which was selected for the Dramatic Competition category at the festival, a young man drags an older man over a dirt road, through the woods and into the murky water of a pond.
''I wrote the first scene first,'' Harjo told the audience at the Jan. 23 screening of the film. ''And then I wrote the story around that scene. I thought, 'How cool would it be for the opening scene to be this guy being dragged down a dirt road?' And all the questions the audience would have from that image.''
Harjo said he wanted to tell a story about a guy who died but was always part of the story. ''Four Sheets'' stars Cree actor Cody Lightning as Cufe Smallhill, the young man in the opening scene who is dragging his father, Frankie, along an Oklahoma dirt road. After Cufe finds his father dead from an overdose of prescription pills, he fulfills his father's wishes without hesitation by putting his body in the family's pond near their home. Cufe sinks his father's body to the bottom of the pond, where he can rest in peace.
The aftermath of his father's death affects Cufe in ways that he does not understand; he feels empty and alone. But it is these emotions that drove him to leave his Indian town and head to the big city, where he could discover who he was and who he wanted to be.
''For me, this was just a project to love,'' said Lightning, who met Sterlin at the Sundance Film Festival a few years prior to making the film. ''Everyone who worked on the film was there for Sterlin's story.''
''Four Sheets'' leads Lightning's character on a universal story of gr owth, love and death. In Tulsa, Okla., Cufe stays with his sister, Miri, who is played by Ojibway actress Tamara Podemski. Podemski portrays a troubled young woman who struggles through life and falls into a world of isolation, pain and destruction.
''This character has been the most in-depth role that I've ever been able to play,'' said Podemski, who is a successful singer and actress in Canada. ''It's a huge role as an actor. I get to showcase my work in this film. I'm flying high on all the audience response to the film and my role.''
For her role as Miri, Podemski received the Sundance's special jury mention for acting ''for a fully realized physical and emotional turn.''
Podemski said playing the role of Miri changed her as an actress.
''Unless it is a role like Miri, I'm kind of not interested in it,'' Podemski told Indian Country Today. ''Unless it's a role that can challenge me like that, I don't know if I can do it.''
Podemski said that after working for Harjo, her standards have risen on what roles she would want to accept in the future.
''When you trust you director, miraculous things happen,'' Podemski said. ''I've never been so out of my mind; it's the wildest experience. I don't think I've ever been able to act so well, because I've never been able to trust my whole being like I was able to do with Sterlin.''
Harjo and his cast and crew filmed the entire film in 18 days on location in Oklahoma.
''It was a serious culture shock for me. I've traveled overseas and I've traveled to different places, but nothing has been like Oklahoma and I mean that with all respect,'' said Podemski, who is a native of Canada. ''The most helpful thing is the music [from the film] and the music that comes out of Oklahoma.''
Podemski said Harjo only gave her a paragraph describing the character of Miri and a compact disc with 10 songs on it.
''I listened to that CD for about two months straight and that is what gave me the understanding on what Miri's world was like,'' she said.
Harjo, who was born and raised in Oklahoma, said his upbringing is part of who he is as a filmmaker. He said he wanted to incorporate the culture of Oklahoma into the film, through the imagery and the music. By making films that capture the diversity of people that comprise that state, Harjo said he feels he is giving back to the people.
Lightning said working as an actor in films like ''Four Sheets'' allows him to also give back to his community.
''What I'm doing is not just for my tribe, my rez, my people; but it's for all Natives, as a whole, to get our voices out there,'' Lightning said. ''It is important to hold on to your roots and know where you come from.''