The first time we spoke more than a year ago, Turquoise Rose director Travis Hamilton said he hoped people would leave the theatre asking, “What Navajo made that movie?”
Travis Hamilton isn’t Navajo—hell, he isn’t even Native. But audiences who’ve seen his film, even Navajo audiences, are leaving the theatre asking that very question.
Perhaps this explains the pleasure of watching his sweetly uncomplicated film with an all Navajo cast starring Natasha Kaye Johnson, Ethel Begay and Deshava Apachee.
Turquoise Rose’s theme of a prodigal child returning to her ancestral home is hardly groundbreaking; yet the setting and story of a thoroughly modern college student, (Johnson) reclaiming her Native heritage through the help of her grandmother (Begay) and sensitive artist (Apachee) is a first.
The film succeeds, not so much because of the light script, but because Hamilton has the confidence to defer to the images of sandstone landscapes, dusty highways and most of all, to his actors. Together, they tell her story; no, let me rephrase that—they show the growth of the young woman rejoining her external and spiritual life.
It works. The affection shared by the ailing elder and her granddaughter is never forced and utterly believable—so believable that viewers come away thinking that Johnson, like her character, is unfamiliar with Navajo customs.
“I was afraid that people were going to associate me with Turquoise Rose, like that is who I am,” Johnson admits. “In the frybread making scene, for example, I know how to make bread. Even when I’m chopping wood or chasing sheep in the film, I know how to do these things. But the character couldn’t reflect that and had to act like I didn’t know how to do these things. That wasn’t always easy, believe me.”
The fact that she pulled it off so effortlessly is even more impressive when you realize that the Twin Lakes, New Mexico actress had never performed in front of a camera before. And those in the know are noticing. She was nominated for Best Actress at the 2007 American Indian Film Festival and has filmed a short film for ABC-Disney called Rez Runner with other opportunities landing her way.
She’s got the bug, she admits, but not just for acting. A former reporter for the Gallup Independent, Johnson recently moved to Phoenix to advance her journalism career while considering her options performing on the big screen.
“Right now I’m on that fence about what I want to do…acting or journalism? …So far, though, it’s been frustrating. Some of the scripts I’ve been sent have been sooo stereotypical. I mean, are you serious?”
That’s what makes Hamilton’s film different; even radical when compared to the smug patronizing of other non-Native film projects. Ahem…remember Black Cloud ?
“I wanted to create a simple story that’s real,” Hamilton says. “…That’s why we’ve taken it to the people; to make sure it’s honest.”
Navajo audiences have responded enthusiastically. The reason, Johnson explains, is that her tribe doesn’t get the opportunity to see themselves and their home portrayed with such detailed accuracy.
“The jokes are Navajo and so many little things in the movie are so Native. They get it,” she says. “The biggest thing that people appreciate is that the movie was shot on the Navajo Nation. People know those places…I’ve heard people comment, 'I know where that turn-off is, I know where that rock is.’ We have so much pride in where we come from and it’s really a huge part of who we are. To think that it has been shown onscreen, we are so proud.”
That’s the point, Hamilton says. “Turquoise Rose was intended to be visually stimulating. Everything doesn’t need to be spoken in words. I want people to see and feel the story.”
The film’s sprightly star and solid supporting cast engage you, from the warmth between two female leads, the dead-on ethnic repartee, or the budding romance between Turquoise and artist Harry Bahe. And yes, you do see it. You do feel it.
In fact, you can’t help but wonder, “What Navajo made that movie?”
Which may be highest praise of all.
Visit the Turquoise Rose Official Website and the film trailer on NativeVue's VUEtv