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Notes From a Scene: A Native Filmmaking Enclave in Albuquerque

Jason Asenap shares his thoughts on the burgeoning community of filmmakers in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Filmmaker Jason Asenap, Comanche and Muskogee Creek, was born in Oklahoma and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There he is putting the final touches on his film, Rugged Guy (a project selected for a 2011 Sundance NativeLab Fellowship) and collaborating with a lot of talented filmmakers. He sent us some thoughts on the excitement he feels as an American Indian making movies in the Duke City.

So I’ve been working with this group of people here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Blackhorse Lowe, Melissa Henry, Alfredo Perez, Sydney Freeland, Daniel Hyde, Kelly Byars, Cody Lewis, Jonathan Sims—the list continues but I only have so much space to write here. Believe me the list continues and if this gets published I imagine I’ll get a friendly punch in the arm. This list is all Native, with the possible exception of Alfredo Perez, who is Peruvian; you can draw your boundaries where you’d like. We are all indigenous if nothing else.

For some odd reason the stars have aligned here in Albuquerque to have all of these good people in the same city, creating, collaborating in making films. This has been going on for some time in actuality, I only came to notice, work, and meet some of these good folks during the shooting of a film that I workshopped in the Sundance NativeLab in 2011, Rugged Guy.

I had known Blackhorse before this, but had only really gotten to know him better during the NativeLab workshop and more specifically on the drive back up to Albuquerque from Mescalero. On that drive I realized I wanted to kickstart my script into production, and I wanted him to help me. To provide more context, Blackhorse is something of a Sundance veteran, having been to the festival numerous times. I respected his work immensely. He is a true auteur. I believe I asked him to be numerous things on this drive up to Albuquerque, my mind was working so fast. I believe I asked him to be an actor first, then to be the director of photography, until ultimately we settled on producer, a good fit for him, as he was so familiar with the inner workings of a film set.

For me, this is when my experience with this great indigenous collective of film people began.

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I corralled Jonathan Sims into being my DP and thus Rugged Guy was truly born. We put out a call for actors, we did a Kickstarter campaign, and we held production meetings because we WERE going to make the short film.

It was during Indian Market last year when I found out our Kickstarter made its goal. I checked the Kickstarter page incessantly. I was obsessed with achieving success, because not only did it affect me, it affected many, now because of their attachment to the project. Because of this I had put my heart and soul into the project's success. I brought my dad into the campaign and he contributed such great artwork. My mom made posters. My cousins made us Indian tacos during the shoot. It was truly a family affair.

Making this short film was a blast. It was work, mind you, and hard work at that—but when you are doing what you love, it never really is work, is it? I finally got to work with the great Navajo actress Natasha Kaye Johnson, whom I first noticed on Sydney Freeland’s short film Rez Runner so many years back. I finally got to work with Kelly Byars, whose work I very much admired when I saw him act in Thomas Yeahpau’s short film, My Favorite Runner, from the now defunct IAIA Disney workshop. I got the opportunity to be a mad scientist and put together great artists I admired and make something happen.

The film is still in post-production, nearly complete, but not quite there yet. Several more short films since Rugged Guy have been made here, many with the same crew. Several more (some features) are being written as I type this and we’ll continue to persevere and make more. Making a film is a truly collaborative effort and without each and every member of the film team, a film cannot happen. It’s hard work, but worth it.

I feel lucky to be here in Albuquerque at this time. We all are striving to create good cinema, collaboratively. I encourage you to find your community, creative or not, wherever you are, and create great work.