Interview: Sterlin Harjo (Director – ‘This May Be The Last Time’)

TMBTLT_poster_bb_nocrossDirector Sterlin Harjo heard a story hundreds of times growing up; the story of when his grandfather disappeared. Pete Harjo mysteriously went missing in 1962 after his car crashed on a rural bridge in Sasakwa, Oklahoma. The Seminole Indian community began a day and night search for his body. As they combed the riverbanks it is told they sang songs of faith and hope that had been passed on for generations.

In This May Be The Last Time, the director revisits his grandfather’s mysterious death and how hymns played a role then and now in uniting families and communities in times of worship, joy, mourning, hope, tragedy. This deeply personal journey starts in Oklahoma’s Native churches and carries on through astounding connections to slavery in the deep American South and onward as far away as the Scottish highlands.

David Teich spoke with Sterlin Harjo in anticipation of the film’s digital release, as well as its continued national screenings. In this in depth discussion, Sterlin touches upon various aspects of the film’s life, as well as its highly personal nature.

Find More Information & Screening Possibilities for ‘This May Be The Last Time’HERE

Did you always know that you would use your grandfather’s disappearance and death as a way of talking about these songs?
At first I just wanted to tell a story about the songs. But as we were shooting, I would casually mention my grandfather’s story to people every now and then. Sometimes the cameras would even be put away. But it kept so happening that a lot of the people who were around at the time of his death were there. So I would pull the cameras back out and interview them about it. It just grew naturally out of talking to people.

Since you never got to meet your grandfather, did making this film help you get to know him better?
One of the best compliments I got about the film was from my dad. My grandfather died when my dad was four or five, so he grew up not knowing him. And my dad said, “I feel like you’ve let me be closer to knowing who my dad was…” And it made me feel like I knew him better too. For me, [my grandfather’s death] had always just been a story that my grandma told my family and me. But once I started making this movie, it was no longer just a story. I saw how people were affected by it: my grandma, my aunt, my dad. I realized how real it was.

TMBTLT1In more impersonal documentarians, directors tend to take themselves out of the film completely. But in this film, you act as narrator. What made you decide to include yourself in the film?
I really didn’t plan on being in it. I was against it at first. Werner Herzog is the one who does that best, and I almost felt like there was no point in trying—you’re not going to do it better than he does. When people other than Herzog put themselves in documentaries, I usually don’t like it. But this is such a personal story. And I felt like I had to be part of the bridge to the audience: I left home, but can look back at home and see the power of these songs, and really explain to the audience what they mean. I actually shot an interview, but I didn’t include it. I wouldn’t have been able to watch the film if I was talking throughout.

At what age did you start hearing these songs?
They were always there. I probably heard them for the first time when I was literally zero years old. Where I grew up, we have big, close families, and there was always someone passing away. You were always at a funeral. I’ve been a pallbearer maybe 7 times. And you’re always hearing these songs. But it wasn’t until I went off to college that I realized that they were unique to my upbringing and the people I grew up around, and that not everyone knew them. And as I traveled around and moved out of Oklahoma—once I didn’t have these songs in my life anymore—I became more aware of how important they are to me. I missed them when I was gone.

In your mind, to what extent to you connect these songs to death?
The mourning and burial process that we go through takes four days from the time someone dies. Everything’s very ritualized. You’re together, and it’s sad, and it’s fun, and it’s funny. You’re seeing people you haven’t seen it years. And the songs are just a part of it: They’re constantly being sung, to the very last moment when the person is buried. So they’re connected to death, but they’re also a part of the healing process, the process of sending someone off and becoming okay with them being gone. There’s hopefulness in them as well.

TMBTLT2At what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to include your cultural background in your creative work?
The first time I ever got any real encouragement as a creative writer was in a college course I took. I wrote a story about my grandma, and the teacher really liked it. And when I was around 20, I was living in Oregon, and my grandmother had read the story. She wrote me a letter—and I mention this in the film—saying that whenever I came back home, I should consider writing about some of the Indian churches in our hometown. I hadn’t thought about it before she said that, but I thought, of course I should do something with that world. So I started writing screenplays, and my first script was about these churches. And around this time, it really hit me that this world is so unique, and that no one knows about it. I really developed nostalgia for home around then. And any chance I got I would talk about these songs, and I would try to learn them.

As you point out in the film, the songs are in danger of dying out. Why is it important to save them?
That’s like trying to answer the question, “Why is it important to save who you are?” If you grow up with something that’s unique to you, your family and your friends, it’s a part of you. And when I realized that no one knew these songs, I thought, “Am I going be a part of the problem and let this stuff disappear, or am I going to be a part of something that might save it?” So I started learning more songs, and I’m able to sing them. There might be a day when they’re gone. But it won’t be because I didn’t try. And in a way they will always be here, because I made a film about them. I’ve actually included them in all of the films that I’ve made: There’s usually a hymn in them somewhere. I grew up in a small rural community of 5,000 people. And that way of life is in such danger of disappearing. Everyone’s on their smart phones—including me—and the culture is being very streamlined. I feel like the lifestyle I grew up with is leaving. One of my favorite things to do is going to small-town Oklahoma, finding a little country diner, and just sitting there. There’s usually a group of farmers that are drinking coffee, bitching about the weather or whatever. I love listening to them talk. I romanticize things. I have a lot of nostalgia for my childhood, and the way things were in my small town. And so the songs are just a natural part of that. I’ve romanticized them too, in a good way. And maybe my enthusiasm for these songs will rub off on people, and younger people will want to learn them.

In the film, you talk about the way that Native Americans have taken aspects of American culture and made them their own—particularly Christianity, which was initially forced on them. Over the generations, what has it meant to Native people to handle things this way?
I think it’s meant survival. Native peoples easily could have been wiped off the face of the country by now. There are so many reasons why we could have given up—from our first contact with Europeans, to war, to my grandparents generation, when native people were put in boarding schools and abused, having their hair cut and getting beaten if they spoke their native language. There’s been so much assault on our way of life and on who we are. Native people had to adapt, and had to absorb things and make them their own. That was a way of surviving…But it was also about respecting other people’s ways of life. I think indigenous people in this country, and in others, are taught from an early age to respect other people and their beliefs. You don’t have to believe what they believe, but you respect it…I think adapting and integrating other people’s cultures comes out of that respect.

11-18-13_HYMNS_MASTER.Still006In the film, it’s mentioned that the history of indigenous people has been overlooked in this country. Why do you think that is?
One reason indigenous people have been overlooked is guilt. Right now, folks are pretty cool with native people. It’s kind of a badge of honor if you’re a native person. If you’re at a party and you say you’re Native American, people are like, “Oh cool, what tribe? Where are you from?” All of a sudden you’re the focus of attention for a little while. But with that, there’s guilt. People feel bad about what their ancestors did to our ancestors, and sometimes it might seem best not to pay attention to that painful history. So people overlook things like music. But another issue is, native people have learned to keep things to themselves, because they don’t want their culture to be exploited or used against them. For instance, if you listen to our traditional music—which isn’t in this film—it’s so obvious that it influenced the blues. But no one knows that. And part of the reason is that we’ve kept it hidden, because we’ve seen what’s happened when we don’t hide things.

So what can be done to preserve native art and culture?
I think people need to try and include native people and our culture in the story of America. We’re part of this culture. And it’s easy to overlook what we have contributed to this country, since we’re one percent of the population. But I think that’s changing. People are smarter, they’re becoming more educated. I think that supporting native artists is a good idea. And people just need to learn, and be aware, and not be ignorant.

And making a documentary doesn’t hurt either.
Exactly.

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