Best Student Film Award winners at 2015 LA SKINS FEST. Left to right: Ute Mountain Ute Councilwoman Deanne House, film students: Tayanita Hatch, Destiny Whitman, Kamea Clark, Leslie Lang, and "Films By Youth Inside" Founder and Creative Director, Alex Munoz.
"OMG! We won Best Student Film at the LA SKINS FEST!" was the enthusiastic reaction from Beverly Santicola. Beverly is a co-executive producer of the film, "Escape," the first film ever produced by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe (UMUT) Youth. The UMUT Youth wrote, performed, directed and produced the film in partnership with Alex Munoz, founder and creative director of Films by Youth Inside (FYI). The film first premiered in Cortez and Durango, Colorado in October, and was selected to screen at the 2015 LA SKINS FEST in Los Angeles - the biggest Native American film festival in the United States.
In the weeks leading up to LA SKINS FEST, Beverly had feverishly raised funds to allow a delegation of UMUT Youth actors to attend this special screening of their film. At the festival, lead actress Kamea Clark expressed what the experience meant to her, "Having the opportunity to represent the Ute Mountain Youth at the LA SKINS FEST means the world to me. I never imagined something like this happening. Our film has touched people in ways I never thought it would. It's making people think twice about what they do."
"Escape", is a powerful fictional short film that draws the viewer into the struggles and suffering of Native American youth by portraying issues such as overwhelming poverty, epidemic suicide, drug use, low educational attainment and homophobia. Little of this reality is normally depicted in the media.
UMUT tribal leaders have recognized the crisis facing their youth, and fear for the future of their children and the overall survival of their tribe. In April of 2015, the tribal leadership, with the help of Beverly Santicola, organized the Ute Mountain Native National Partnership Retreat, which BoomerangCoach had the honor to facilitate. The retreat was attended by 40 government agencies and 20 national partner organizations, and helped the UMUT develop a new vision and approach for tribal youth to re-connect with their cultural roots, strengths and passions. One of the partnerships formed as part of that event was a five year agreement with Films by Youth Inside, an arts organization that teaches tribal youth how to tell their stories by making their own films.
The film "Escape" is the first in a series to be produced as part of this partnership. It tells the story of two teenagers, Rachel and Adam, played by Kamea Clark and Wendell Mills, Jr., who plan to escape their troubled lives through a joint suicide. Poverty, drugs and alcohol, homophobia, bullying and not knowing where to find help all contribute to the hopelessness of these two young people.
Although fictional, the story and characters reflect the harsh reality of these teenagers, and at certain points both Kamea and Wendell considered not continuing with the film. But they stayed with it, and finished production along with all the other actors. Kamea was glad she did, remarking "most people don't talk about suicide a lot, but by making this film people are talking about it more. It makes me feel good that our film might help prevent suicides in the future."
Kamea and Wendell were not the only film students who considered leaving during the production. As Alex Munoz explained, "One student would leave us secret messages on the dry erase board after each film making class: Day one she wrote, BORING. -- Day two she wrote I WANT TO GO HOME. -- Day three she wrote I LIKE OUR STORY. -- Day Four she wrote FILMMAKING IS THE BOMB."
Alex believes that giving these young people the opportunity to tell their story is what enabled this transformation. He said, "What I am most struck by is the youth's honesty in their story telling. It's almost as if they were saying: 'We have some issues and problems in our community and we can't just keep on ignoring them. We need to work together to figure out how to make things better so that we can all have happier lives.'"
The issues depicted in the film are affecting not only the UMUT, but also many of the 566 nationally recognized tribes throughout the United States. These issues have been long ignored by previous administrations. Fortunately, President Obama has shown a greater commitment to addressing this national crisis. In fact, as a result of the federal government's commitment and the momentum created at the Ute Mountain National Partnership Retreat to find solutions to these issues, the UMUT was selected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as one of four tribes to participate in the Tiwahe Initiative. This five year initiative provides funding and administrative resources to these four tribes to develop better coordinated services centered on the needs of their families and communities. The name "Tiwahe", which means "family" in the Lakota language, was chosen to inspire better collaboration within these communities so that families live healthier and happier lives.
Tiwahe, successfully implemented, will help save young people such as Rachel and Adam, who have lost all hope, by providing the care and services they need. Offering tribal youths the opportunity to tell their stories, such as the story in the film "Escape", is an integral part of the UMUT Tiwahe Intiative to help their tribal community heal, become resilient and prosper. The success of the UMUT- FYI film collaboration with its first film, "Escape", should serve as an example for other Native American youth initiatives around the country. Allowing tribal youth to share their stories through film making and other art forms helps them to heal and even transform their lives.
"Escape" can be viewed online at https://vimeo.com/141806754.