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More Than Frybread Mockumentary Going Rez to Rez

A Q&A with the director of More Than Frybread, a Best In Show-style mockumentary set in Indian Country
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American Indians take their frybread seriously -- could it also be a laughing matter? The question is addressed in the film More Than Frybread, a documentary-style account of the fictional Frybread Championship, which showed in Moscow, Idaho, on Thursday night.

The mockumentary genre has an acknowledged master -- Christopher Guest, director of Waiting For Guffman, Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Travis Hamilton, More Than Frybread's writer/director/producer says he isn't consciously doing Guest's style: "I’ve seen one of Guest’s films, Best In Show, a dog competition. Lots of people have said my film reminds them of his filmmaking. People ramble off two or three other films I’ve never seen but have heard of. It does follow along those lines, although it’s family rated."

The screening in Moscow was part of a 15-day tour Hamilton has embarked upon, taking his movie to Native American audiences all over the west. After the show (and yes, there was a lot of laughter) ICTMN chatted with Travis Hamilton about his remarkable film.

What is your background in this field?
I go out to the rez, non-Native, a missionary and just got a degree in anthropology from Northern Arizona University. It’s kind of funny. Three strikes against me right from the start to work with Native people. But it’s fine, I love working on the reservations.

Why did you choose frybread as a subject?
I wanted to make a movie that got us outside the Navajo reservation. I wanted something where we literally had an excuse to shoot on another reservation and make new friends and I thought frybread was a good thing to bring people together. I didn’t realize how frybread is kind of universal so we’re getting people from all over the U.S. and Canada to come and view the film.

Frybread is more important than life or death in Indian country. Have you found anyone offended by making light of it?
We had a world premiere February 3rd and sold out a show of 900 seats and almost sold a second show out the same evening. I think we’ve had one lady that’s seen it that came up with concerns, one out of possibly 10,000 people now that have seen it.

Were the actors paid?
Yes, they were.

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Were any of them professional actors?
There were a couple that were SAG [Screen Actors Guild]. A few have been on some big movies -- Tatanka Means and Camille Nighthorse. It was the first lead for either of them. A couple of others we had used in other movies. For about 90% of the actors it was their first time. Over 60 actors had speaking parts.

What other reservations are you hitting on this tour?
We’ll hit 11 reservations. On the journey up we started at the Hualapai Reservation, then Umatilla, Yakama, and Nez Perce. Now we’re here [at the University of Idaho] and then we’ll hit Colville, Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, Rocky Boy in Montana and then Fort Duchesne, the Uinta-Ouray, and we finish up in San Carlos. We’ll be gone 15 days and 14 of those days we’ll be showing the movie on 11 reservations in six states.

Final question, why does a white guy make Native films?
I get that question all the time. I came to a better understanding a few weeks ago, someone talking about a hybrid. It’s an interesting idea. That’s the kind of film making I guess I’m involved with, hybrid film making. Here’s this outsider coming to Native communities and working together. I feel we can make a better movie doing it that way.

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So why not have a national frybread competition? Hamilton points out that there are championships for all kinds of pursuits -- even hoop dancing. There is now a website, that was developed to build up the movie, “but now we’re getting comments that are serious,” he said. “Little by little it’s turning into a real thing. When we showed it on the Yakama Nation a few days ago they held the first annual, sponsored by the WEWFA, Yakama championship.”

More Than Frybread showed as part of the 10th annual Sapatq’ayn Cinema a Native American film festival staged by the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Idaho. Dr. Janis Johnson, coordinator of the American Indian Studies Program, has produced this from the beginning. “As far as I know it’s the only Native American film festival in the Inland Northwest,” she said.

The University’s Vandal Nation Drum opened the evening and Nez Perce elder Horace Axtell followed with comments about the annual festival where he has presided nine of the ten years. The crowd, numbering upwards of 150, then relaxed to enjoy several movies. More Than Frybread was the feature and laughter erupted throughout the showing.