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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

How easy is it to lose everything? Too easy, as Cherokee filmmaker Christopher Coursey illustrates in his debut film,“The River Woe.”

An original drama about how quickly one can lose it all, Coursey’s short film is made with an all Native cast and crew, including a Cherokee First Language speaker. Set in the present day, “The River Woe” tells the story of an Indigenous man who gets laid off and, with no government or tribal help, must resort to the old ways of fishing to provide food for his family.

Artist and filmmaker Christopher Coursey, Cherokee Nation, debuts his first film, "The River Woe," in fall 2022 about an Indigenous man who turns to his traditions to feed his family after being laid off. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Coursey)

Coursey is branching out to make his own films after working on two feature-length films, “Cherokee Word for Water,” and “Wildfire: Legend of the Cherokee Ghost Horse.” He’s also an artist.

“I've been a professional artist for many years,” Coursey told ICT by phone from Oklahoma. “I love to do anything creative. I normally draw, paint and sculpt things, but in an effort to do anything creative, I worked on two major films, and through that, I've just gotten the bug of working on movies.”

Then he became friends with a director, he said.

“I told him I was going to buy some camera stuff and had this short script that I was thinking about trying to do as a hobby or just to learn things,” Coursey said. “He liked my story and he likes my work ethic, so he let me borrow his professional movie equipment and cameras.”

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Coursey believes that one has to write what you know, and what he knows is the Cherokee Nation.

“I live here in Church County, in Oklahoma, the heart of the Cherokee Nation, so I just started from there with things that I know, and based it around a friend of mine because he had a fishing boat,” he said. “I wrote my script around what I have. We ended up not using the boat, but the whole story spawned from the rivers and lakes here, and I wanted to do something as a Native American story.”

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“The River Woe,” produced by Native Fable Movie Productions, stars Marcus Thompson, Danielle Campbell and Marcus Pruitt. It also features Marlene Glass Ballard, a First Language speaker from the United Keetowah Band of Cherokees. Pruitt also co-directed the film. 

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He held a private screening in Oklahoma recently and has entered the film into several film festivals. He also plans to make it available soon on YouTube.

A prime location

Coursey had a clear plan in mind in making the film.

“I hired a completely 100 percent Native American crew and cast, a group effort, and everybody working together,” he said. “It's got cultural relevance with real Cherokee language in it from a First Language speaker. The story is based along the lines of discrimination and things that people have to face in real life.

“It’s not based on my own life, but one of the guys that stars in it said this exact same scenario happened to him.”

This still shot from the short film, "The River Woe," (2022), shows an Indigenous man played by Marcus Thompson who is forced to return to his Native traditions to feed his family after being laid off. The film debuts in fall 2022. (Film trailer courtesy of Christopher Coursey)

The film was shot on location in Oklahoma, where incentives are available for film. The Cherokee Nation also recently opened a new virtual soundstage, the Extended Reality Studio, or XR Studio.

“Oklahoma is prime location for movie shooting,” Coursey said. “The state of Oklahoma has a tax incentive for projects filmed in Oklahoma. And then on top of that, the Cherokee Nation has another incentive that they offer each year. Now, they'll reimburse up to $1 million of the production costs.”

Coursey said crews from California and elsewhere like working in Oklahoma – the cost of things is cheaper and they get a lot more out of their production than in other states.

Looking ahead

He’s confident this will be the first of several films, but he’s also looking ahead to starting his own studio.

“I want to keep creating Native American content. My goal is to show what I can do to investors and producers and different people,” he said.

“Right now, a lot of the film stuff is going around the Oklahoma City and Tulsa area, but this area right here around Tahlequah is the most scenic area in the entire state,” he said. “If I could slowly build something in this area, that would be a good thing. I want to build the Cherokee Nation up.”

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