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UA Alumni bring Native American stories to life

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Photo courtesy Kerryn Negus

Native American stories are coming to life on the big screen with the help of four University of Arizona alumni. 

Presented by the UA's Hanson Film Institute and the Cline Library at Northern Arizona University, the Flagstaff Red Screen Film Festival celebrates indigenous world cinema, featuring short films made by UA alumni.

“I think that diversity film festivals are so important because it brings different stories and different worlds to a screen and to audiences who might have never seen these films before,” participating filmmaker Christopher Nataanii Cegielski said.  

Cegielski began his filmmaking career by making comedy films out of Legos for his friends. He eventually traded his Legos in for real people and made his short film “Bloodlines" while he was a junior at the UA. Since then, he has been making films for six years.

“The whole aspect of storytelling inspired me to become a filmmaker,” Cegielski said. “I think that I am more drawn to storytelling and creating a story that makes people feel different emotions.”

At the festival, Cegielski will be showing three short films, including the aforementioned “Bloodlines,” which was his senior thesis. 

“It’s about two brothers trying to get the acceptance and respect from their father by killing the wolf that’s killing their sheep,” Cegielski said. 

Cegielski described his time working on “Bloodlines” as a slow burn. He said making the film was a long process, working on and producing it for half of a semester.

“Half of the time, it felt like it was going to happen and at other times it felt like there was no way it could happen,” Cegielski said. “It would all fall apart but come together at the same time.”

The next short film Cegielski will show is called “BE KNOWN.” It is a one-minute commercial piece for a non-profit organization called Wings of America, which promotes healthy lifestyles in native youth around the country through running. 

“I was part of a program called Project Involve in Los Angeles and that program awarded me the Sony Pictures Diversity Fellowship and gave me a little grant,” Cegielski said. “I put some of it aside for a project, which is “BE KNOWN.” I got some good old friends together and we went up to Gallop, New Mexico and shot it over a course of four days.”

Last but not least, Cegielski will be showing another short film, titled “The Fight Before the Fight.” 

“It’s a portrait piece I made about a Muay Thai kickboxer out of Sylmar, California named Jake Ramirez,” Cegielski said. “His whole deal is that he was young and a little bit out of control and didn’t really have a grasp on his life. He paid the price for that and got beat up at a party and went to Muay Thai to learn how to protect himself, but as he started taking Muay Thai, it consumed him in the best way possible.”

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In addition to the Flagstaff Red Screen Film Festival, Cegelski has showed some of his short films at other film festivals. According to Cegielski, “Bloodlines” went to imagineNATIVE, the largest indigenous film festival in the world, as well as Berlinale National Film Festival and Sun Valley Film Festival. 

Similar to Cegielski, Stacy Howard, is another UA alumna who will be screening one of her short films at the festival. Howard wants to bring Navajo stories to the big screen, taking inspiration from movies she watched while growing up on the reservation.

“Smoke Signals was a film that was pretty inspirational because it was a film about Native Americans,” Howard said. “Watching it was an inspiration because it was like, 'Oh hey, somebody is making native films.' It was something that sparked in me.”

Howard will be showing her film “Amásání” at the festival. She describes the film as a tender story about a rebellious young girl’s relationship with her traditional Navajo grandmother.

“The story starts off with the little girl getting in trouble at school, and her mom tells her that she is going to go stay with her grandmother,” Howard said. “When she goes there, she experiences how her grandmother lives every day.”

“Amásání” has been shown at 12 film festivals, including imagineNATIVE and the Native Cinema Showcase, which was a presentation of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

“I was able to attend the Native Cinema Showcase and it was totally awesome to see all the native films there,” Howard said.

Donavan Seschillie, a UA alumnus as well, will also be showing his short film, “The Rocket Boy,” at the festival. After convincing his grandfather to go to watch “Saving Private Ryan” with him, Seschillie was inspired to make movies just like it.

“The Rocket Boy” is a story about a young boy who loses his father, so he builds a rocket ship in order to find him. Seschillie said that it is his most personal film.

“It took about three years,” Seschillie said. “I was getting ready to go to the UA and at the same time I was writing the short film. Then we shot it over three months and another year to edit it.”

Seschillie’s hard work paid off when “The Rocket Boy” was picked to be showcased at Sundance in 2011. 

“I had no idea how it got in, it was a really big surprise when I first heard about it,” Seschillie said. “During the time we finished it, it was hard to get into any film festival.”

Sarah Del Seronde is the final UA alumna that will be showing a short film at the festival. According to the festival’s website, her film, Metal Road, explores the dynamics of livelihood, family and the railroads through the lens of a Navajo trackman. 

The Flagstaff Red Screen Film Festival will be held in Flagstaff from July 24-28. For more information on the festivities, visit the festival’s website.


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