SHAANDIIN Tome’s short film Mud (Hashtl’ishnii) looks at the destructive and isolating nature of alcoholism through a Native perspective. Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Shaandiin for a fascinating in-depth discussion about the film and her journey as a filmmaker.
Q: Why was this the story you wanted to tell in your debut film?
A: THE central idea of this film has to deal with the isolation of a human. Where do we as people move past the caring of an individual who is showcasing a need to belong?
On the Navajo Nation, as with other Native populations, there are an absurd amount of alcohol related deaths. There was a particular article pertaining to exposure deaths in Gallup, NM that was circulated presenting addiction as a quantifiable finding. On the other hand, some of my own family members had suffered from exposure death related to alcohol. There was a complete disconnect with seeing people as a statistic instead of as humans.
There’s a fascination with displaying Native Americans within a stereotypical form; it’s acceptable to see us as drunks or romanticize our ways of life, but there is little effort in put in discovery beyond that. We have always been relegated to secondary and subordinate portrayals. There is no complexity to those portrayals, often one-dimensional and serving as an ease of conscience to a general audience. Growing up, I didn’t realize there was a discrepancy.
At the time when I was itching to tell a story that I felt lent an honest perspective, there were a series of consecutive crisis’ happening within my family. Most of them related to addiction. And after these nonstop hardships I saw my own family members as statistics, I began to unconsciously quantify their death without the time to reflect on their being and impact in my life. I was provoked by the fact that I had personally dis-attached myself and my emotions to those who had taught me compassion. I felt tricked. And that was the start, where along the line did I disassociate? And how can I bring an understanding of myself through this? How can I be compassionate once again?
There are plenty of stories involving the hardships of addiction, it is not new, but it is one where I wanted to find a personal understanding.
Q: Trini King gives a powerfully quiet and tragic performance. Can you tell us about casting and working with Trini?
A: RUBY, as a character, is an attempt at a delicate representation of the quiet grapples that one faces with addiction, focusing on those who are at a crossroads of figuring out where they belong.
When casting, I was specifically looking for a person with a certain introspection about them. I wanted to find someone who had connection to the subject matter but beyond that was to find someone who could empathize with the root of the problem, which is a disconnection with our people. Someone who had the belief that addiction wasn’t a hopeless facet of this portrait, of an otherwise confused woman; a challenge to what has been conditioned in the mind of the non-indigenous. And that was about finding someone who could achieve the intricate balance of portraying what could be seen as a stereotypical drunk, but moving past the generalizations and finding where the intricacies of human connection surface.
Trini King walked into an open casting call with everything I was attempting to write. She brought air and passion, but more than anything she respected Ruby. It was a character that could only exist with someone who not only had experiences to pull from, which is unfortunately most of our people, but Trini had the ability to move past the pain and realize that Ruby is an intelligent human being who deserves responsibility. In short, Trini has an intrinsic capacity for empathy, and she has had it long before I ever met her.
Q: Can you tell us more about the significance and symbolism/meaning of Hashtl’ishnii?
A: Within Navajo culture, you are given clans as a link to who you are and who you are related. Hashtl’ishnii means mud people/clan. And to me, that is my connection to where I am placed within this world and where I come.
Navajo’s relate through their clans, and proudly say them when introducing themselves. It’s a statement that brings about belonging. This was long before the atrocities we faced when colonizers arrived. And I guess that just got me thinking, what would be a modern connection to a clanship, and how would current problems affect this map to who you are.
To me it all links back to identity, and right now I believe we as a people are stuck in confusion, and searching for a way back to our clan, or relation to this world. So this is symbolized through Ruby’s eyes in two forms. One as a tie to her family, where it is heard through a story about her son when he was first learning the word Hashtl’ishnii -this is where most Navajo people identify when talking about their clans – a sense of love and belonging.
Then the other, where it has transformed into a burden and there is a weight we carry, this is symbolized through mud. No longer is the clan an internalized idea of family or belonging but it is a hardship that is put on display. And through the display is how mud materializes addiction. The first time we see it, it is seeping out of Ruby, and from there, addiction takes a hold of her. So to Ruby, it’s an undulating path between the facets of her identity.
Q: Why did you choose to film in 16mm and what challenges did that present?
A: 16mm was the dream I never thought would come true. From the initial idea I knew that I wanted to shoot this in 16mm, both for the quality of timelessness and how it added another layer to Ruby’s emotional being. My DP, Mike Maliwanag, would probably be able to describe it in terms of grain, capturing movement, and how light interacts with the stock. By creating a timeless look, it was like a reinterpreted photograph from the past, where we were in control of the image and therefore our own history. I also got a grant to make the film, and potentially thought, “This could be both my first and last film if I mess it up, better go all out”.
Q: A you say, this is your debut film and Sundance’s Native Filmmaker lab helped you along the way. Can you tell us about your journey to make Mud?
A: IT was an anxiety-ridden struggle at first. I had an idea, but the building blocks to make that idea have the most impact weren’t there.
I applied to the Native Filmmaker Lab with what feels like a completely different script. It was an intense process of interviews and there is still some confusion on my behalf with why they chose me, but that belief is what allowed this short to be made. I went to the lab along with Erin Lau, the other chosen filmmaker. We workshopped a scene, went through our scripts, and received incredible mentorship and critique from filmmakers who I respected long before the lab.
From there, I kind of felt like I failed because there was so much work to be done. I went straight into two months of rewriting, essentially ripping apart my script and whining to my producer about how nothing was working. Before we knew it, we were planning dates to shoot, casting, hiring crew, doing a Kickstarter for additional funds, and really diving into the artistic process.
It was a beautiful rollercoaster of delusion and grandiose ideas, energized by the pure passion of my crew. Honestly, it still feels like a miracle thinking of it as something from start to finish, and it wouldn’t have been the same film without the lab.
Q: Eight indigenous-made films screened at Sundance. What does it mean to you to be part of this group and do you feel we are moving in the right direction in terms of representation?
A: IT is a privilege to be amongst such an eclectic and talented bunch. I look up and aspire to each of them because of their ability to convey a refreshing perspective. To be a part of this group means we are all actively working to create honest portrayals in our own right, but also to be pushing each other to make films that have the ability to reflect that honesty.
I’m not quite sure what is the right direction, but it does feel like the foreshock before what will hopefully be an earthquake of inclusivity in the film industry. Sundance has a beautiful atmosphere about it where story is valued and respected. That being said, I think there is still a lot of work to be done in the ways of fostering systemic change, because we are still largely at a deficit in front of and behind the camera.
Q: As a Diné woman, what hurdles have you faced trying to ‘make it’ as a filmmaker? And conversely, what strength has your perspective given you?
A: THERE are times where I feel like being a Diné women, and attempting to find success in the industry feels daunting. There are plenty of great inclusion initiatives for both women and minorities. But sometimes it feels as if I act as the token women minority in a sea of producers who are just trying to find women to say they are “mending the gap”, instead of people who value artistry, talent, and just being a filmmaker. Even as I go through the festival circuit promoting my short, at times I feel undermined at the mention of how my film is good for a women, minority, Native American, or young person.
I am constantly questioning my ability as an artist, and if I would hold up within the larger industry without all the push for including females in the industry. The question that pops in my head is, “Am I just a trend or am a valued for my creativity?”
However, I do think those looming thoughts are the ramifications of a system that has always pushed women and minorities off to the side. If you think of film’s history, it developed in the 1900s, which wasn’t necessarily a time for gender or ethnic equality. It is an industry that was built upon the precipice of privileged white males, where after the initial “magic” of cinema decelerated, a lot of films were used for propaganda and to perpetuate the views of the elite. But that’s a rant for another time. I’ve always loved film for its ability to suspend disbelief and to create worlds where you couldn’t otherwise exist, and with that mentality, film can be accessible to anyone!
As for the strength, it has allowed some of those insecurities to transform into belief in a unique perspective. I was fortunate to be raised where my parents never implanted the inequality that I might potentially feel as a woman or minority. I have a strong belief that the community will be more inclusive and I am seeing it happen, even if that might be a naive thought where I have been impervious to what might exist outside of my small world. I have a tunnel vision where creating movies is the center. Despite all of the statistical odds stacked against me, I live with the incendiary passion that I was meant to create films that explore human emotion.
Q: Chris Eyre is the Native filmmaker I am most familiar with and he was honoured at Sundance. Who has informed/influenced your work as a filmmaker the most?
A: YES, for Smoke Signals which just had it’s 20th anniversary, which is crazy to think about because I remember watching that movie as a kid because of how it brought my family together. I have a great amount of respect for someone who can pinpoint their exact influences, for me it is constantly evolving. I get distracted pretty easily so I love films where I can completely disappear from my world. A few filmmakers who have allowed that are Wong Kar Wai, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Hayao Miyazaki. There are others. But I also really love “bad” films, and they are just as influential because they make you think, that’s what I’m not going to do.
Q: I believe you got the chance to show the film to the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes. What has been the response from Native audiences?
A: I did, they were so excited about indigenous made films and it stunning to see tribes in the wetland of the Everglades.
There has been an overwhelming amount of support from Native audiences, and it has opened up a lot of conversation. There is a lot of pain that seems to surface, and that can be pretty rough. For a time it felt wrong to be hearing people’s personal convictions to addiction, but it has allowed for a lot of healing within myself. I’m sure there are some people who have qualms with exposing this subject matter, but it is an honest interpretation that I believe is not perpetuating a stereotype. And I think that’s what it’s all about, is staying honest to yourself and from there the right people will identify with what is presented.
It’s pretty insane to go from New Zealand to Montreal and places in between and realize despite how different our cultures and backgrounds are, that we are inherently united. I’m not sure by what but it is a beautiful thing to go somewhere you have never been and feel at home because of the community.
Q: Has Mud given you the confidence to go and make more shorts or a feature perhaps?
A: I have always had a love for filmmaking, and I thought I was wildly passionate before Mud, just to be on any set in whatever capacity just to learn, but the whole creation process from start to finish has pushed me so beyond my scope of reality that I’m in love.
I am currently working on a short, with a feature on the backburner. Although confidence can be questionable at times, I mean this is my writer/directorial debut, wanting to only go up but also accepting the dips and falls. It excites me to no end that I found a way to express myself, and I know that I have a lot of learning ahead of me.