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Sterlin Harjo's 'Mekko': A Thriller Set Among Tulsa's Street Chiefs

Native American director Sterlin Harjo is back with 'Mekko,' a thriller set in Tulsa's homeless American Indian community.
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Sterlin Harjo’s new film, Mekko, takes place in a street community of homeless Native Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The project was conceived as a way to make a film quickly, directly, and inexpensively by shooting on location and hiring homeless people through a nearby soup kitchen as extras for the shoot.

Mekko is about a man who comes to Tulsa and gets taken into this community because he has nowhere else to go,” Harjo said, “but there’s also this person who represents ultimate evil that creeps into this community, and darkness. Then it becomes this thriller, where they’re kind of chasing each other.”

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Harjo, one of the leading forces in Native American cinema, has mostly been working in documentary formats for the past few years, including creating shorts for Tulsa’s This Land Press, the Cherokee Nation’s television show, Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People, and working as the resident director for the comedy group The 1491s, plus releasing his feature length documentary, This May Be The Last Time, last year. Mekko is his return to fiction, but with reality bleeding into it.

“The idea was to make a film with people I know in Oklahoma and Tulsa, with some of the crew I had been working with,” Harjo said. “The project grew a little bit, but I wanted to keep that shooting style, it’s something I’ve played with over the years in Barking Water and different things. I have a script but I really try to make things feel real, capture reality, and use real people in the scenes, like in all of our interior shoots in the restaurants, I never filmed when they were shut down, I requested that we would be allowed film while they were open, we would just work around the real customers and anyone that was there. The idea was they knew that they would be in the background in the film.”

Part of Harjo’s inspiration for Mekko was a classic photo series from the 1970s and 1980s, “Street Chiefs,” by Richard Ray Whitman, who starred in Barking Water. Whitman’s series featured brutally honest, yet sadly beautiful, portraits of homeless Native American men in Oklahoma, the legacy of the Relocation Program from the 1950s.

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Harjo also got to know some homeless Native Americans through a soup kitchen and food bank in downtown Tulsa, The Iron Gate. According to its website, 30% of the people fed by the charity are Native American.

“I always liked Richard’s series of Street Chiefs,” Harjo said. “Whenever I left home and moved to Tulsa I missed my family, I missed my community, you know, the joking around, the Indian humor and things like that. In downtown Tulsa, at the time, I didn’t run into a lot of Indian people, but I started noticing this homeless community, and they just kind of hung out like a tribe, they were like a family. I got to be friends with some of them; I did a short doc on a guy, named Jimmy Washington, for This Land. I was attracted to it because I saw how much fun they were having, you know, it was pretty beautiful, the community that they had. At the same time there were problems, obviously, alcoholism, mental health issues and things like that, but they had each other, and I admired that. I caught myself watching them a lot and the idea really hit me. And then I was watching an old Werner Herzog movie, called Stroszek, and he did the same thing where he shot in real locations and used real people with the actors. There’s just something really cool about that, it touches like a reality that you can’t touch by trying to control and manipulate everything; when you let real life seep its way into the filmmaking something interesting happens.”

Harjo is a part of that generation of directors whose work is more often seen on the web rather than theaters, and he has created an enormous amount of content for the internet. “As a filmmaker I want theaters to last, but my films don’t get shown in theaters unless they get shown in festivals, or in Oklahoma they’ll show them in theaters,” Harjo said. “As far as the future, I don’t know man. I think I’ll end up just trying ride the wave of making films for theaters until they lock me up in an insane asylum or something.”

Mekko most recently screened on July 18th at Tulsa’s Circle Cinema, located in the neighborhood where much of the film was shot, as a benefit for the theater. More festivals and screenings will be announced on the film’s official facebook.com/MekkoMovie page.