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What's Next for Sterlin Harjo? Director Has Wrapped Thriller Set in Tulsa

Acclaimed Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo has made a thriller that takes place in a Native homeless community in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In January, I and several other writers embarked on an adventure in Santa Fe. That adventure was the IAIA low residency MFA creative writing program whereas we writers became students for seven straight days, immersed in workshops, craft lectures and readings, nonstop from morning to evening, from nine to nine. We ate together, shared ideas critiqued, and wrote.

I was part of the screenplay cohort, the smallest of the various cohorts which consisted of fiction, poetry, and memoir. We numbered about five.

Geo. R. Lawrence Co./Library of Congress

Marshall Field, Chicago, Carlisle vs. Chicago, Nov. 23, 1907.

During the residency I caught up with many friends from near and far, from as far away as Montana to as near and familiar as Oklahoma. I met two old friends, Migizi Pensoneau and Sterlin Harjo, who are both members of the 1491s, at a local Santa Fe restaurant. Over sliders, we discussed the MFA program and other projects. Migizi was about to head down the road to teach a student workshop with Bobby Wilson, another of the 1491s. Sterlin, director of Four Sheets ot the Wind (2007), Barking Water (2009), and This May Be the Last Time (2014), has an unusual perspective on the MFA program: He’s attending it as a student even though he is a faculty member. Sterlin told me a bit about his motivation for doing so, and then gave me the scoop on his exciting new film.

You’re already an established filmmaker—why would you go through this IAIA program?

Sterlin Harjo: So they asked me to teach the program and I said yes. But I would also like to take the program just because you can always go further (with education) and I never finished school and I wanted to. IAIA is…what’s the word…IAIA is sort of like, I mean some of my heroes came to IAIA. A lot of painters I admire, T.C. Cannon…

Fritz Scholder, Richard Ray Whitman…

Yes, lot of people that I know came through here. It’s kind of a cool place to say Hey—I could go get a degree from there, and add my name to the list of people that came through! So, I think it’s kind of a cool thing.

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Are you currently working on any film projects?

I’ve just finished a film—I’m still tweaking the edit. Trying to finish it up and do a sound mix and color correction. It’s called Mekko and it’s a thriller that takes place in Tulsa. I wanted to make a movie that took place within the homeless community, like within an Indian homeless community—I just haven’t seen anything like that. It’s a very specific world and I think it’s beautiful and it’s also sad, and there’s also problems, and I just wanted to tell a whole story that took place within that world.

What was the impetus behind that story?

Well whenever I moved to Tulsa I missed my family a lot. Whenever I moved away in general I missed my family a lot. When I got to Tulsa there wasn’t a lot of Native people in the inner city where I was living. They kind of live on the southside or outskirts, or in their communities and so I just started missing family, my family, I started missing that familiarity of being with Native people laughing, telling jokes, that whole thing. I started noticing the community in the inner city—there was a homeless community and they basically had a kind of tribe. They were together, they had this group and they would hang out, they rode around, I would see them together all the time. I just started watching them and I almost got obsessed. I would pull over on the side of the road and just kind of watch them cause they would be having a good time and laughing, and you know there’s also problems like mental illness and alcoholism, but it was also kind of a beautiful community. And so I just started watching it and I started meeting more people and talking to more people on the streets. I just always wanted to do something with that world.

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Did you ever think about maybe it might be a documentary or did you always think it would be fiction?

I thought about a documentary but I dunno, I just wanted to write. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I watched Werner Herzog’s movie Stroszek and got inspired. I had the whole story in my head. The idea was to make it very cheap and use a lot of real people as actors. Shot it in 15 days. Rod Rondeaux stars in it, so does Zahn McClarnon.

Did you use any local people?

Rod and Zahn aren’t local, but most everyone else is, and there’s also real people that I’ve met at the Iron Gate homeless shelter where they feed people. I met a lot of people there that actually ended up being actors in the film. I like telling stories about people that don’t get told very much. I like telling stories where like I would be the only to tell that story ever because no ones cares really or no one pays attention. So I like telling stories about people that no one would consider their story worthy to tell you know so, I wanted to tell a story in that world.