Vote for Diné sci-fi film 'Sixth World'
By Diane J. Schmidt
ALBUQUERQUE, May 24, 2012
T he 6th World - An origin story asks, "Does a Navajo prophecy hold the key to humanity's future?"
This science fiction short film won't seem like science fiction to Navajo viewers who know that the Emergence stories are not fairy tales at all.
The 15-minute film is the first Native American episode to be included in the FutureStates online television series sponsored by ITVS and PBS, and can be seen on the Internet at "FutureStates: The Sixth World."
There are only a few days left to vote online and bestow upon it the all-important "Audience Award" at the FutureStates Facebook page, as voting closes Tuesday, May 29.
Screenwriter and director Nanobah Becker, 37, Diné, is Red House Clan, born for Bilagáana. She grew up in Albuquerque and is now based in Los Angeles. She is excited to talk about "The 6th World."
Diné in space
"The film is about Tazbah Redhouse, a Navajo astronaut piloting the first spaceship to colonize Mars," she said, "and the night before she has a mysterious dream that haunts her journey."
The film opens in Monument Valley with a dream sequence as sparks of energy form an orb above a field of corn that has been destroyed.
The sparks just barely give the suggestion of a figure, "like a corn pollen being, a holy person. One challenging thing for Navajo filmmakers is respecting taboos," explained Becker.
Blackfire singer and bass player Jeneda Benally, in an acting debut, stars as the astronaut Tazbah Redhouse.
As the next scene reveals, Tazbah has had a dream that presages trouble but doesn't know what it means. She has yet to understand that the gods of efficiency are the real threat to the mission.
General Bahe, played by Roger Willie, who starred in "Wind Talkers" and is Thoreau High School educator and coach, is stopped as he enters the ship Emergence to see Tazbah off.
He is told by the guard that he cannot bring corn pollen onto the space ship - "Only company approved corn substances are allowed" - and that Omnicorn, the genetically modified corn that will be used to produce enough oxygen for the journey, is "genetically engineered to have very few unusable parts."
Journey to Mars
General Bahe remarks, "Corn with no husks? No stalks or tassels? That's creepy. Some people use those parts. If they have use on earth, they can be used on Mars."
As the ship blasts off into space, Tazbah says to her scientist co-pilot, "Some Navajos believe the mission marks the end of our time on this planet and the beginning of a new life on Mars."
The co-pilot jokes that they are heroes, but Tazbah shakes her head.
One hundred and twenty-two days into the mission, the Omnicorn shows signs of disease and the oxygen begins to wane. The scientist insists a repair is needed, but Tazbah tells him, "Everything is at maximum efficiency."
Under her breath she says, "the corn must be failing." As the corn blackens, Tazbah cries out, "I come from a long line of medicine people and healers. I'm sorry I never took the time to learn those ways."
She speaks with a sincerity that Navajo audiences will know is not just acting. Jeneda Benally, who is Bi'ee'lichii'ii, born for To'dichiinii, is the daughter of medicine man Jones Benally of Winslow and grew up with ceremonies and songs.
Finally Navajo corn comes to the rescue in a dramatic conclusion.
Becker, ever mindful of respecting Navajo culture, said she wanted to make a film with corn as the hero.
Reaching broader audiences
Becker says her first film hit, "Conversion," in Navajo with English sub-titles, which was an official selection Sundance Film Festival, "was really just for Navajos."
Now she is hoping to reach broader audiences.
"I want everyone to see my work," she said.
The result is an eerie juxtaposition of futuristic scenes shot with Hollywood values and Navajo actors with distinctive local accents. Monument Valley does double duty as Mars.
"There's a lot of Navajo iconography you can tell if you're Navajo," said Becker, who was initially invited to submit a screenplay for the series. "First I was funded for developing the script, and then I was funded for the production.
"Each short film proposes an idea that takes place in the near future that comments on American society today," she said.
"I wanted a story where corn was the hero, because of the importance of corn in Navajo life," she said. "I modeled it on the idea that corn will save us."
The idea germinated further when she asked friends on the reservation what they would like to see in a sci-fi movie and one sang out, "Navajos on Mars!"
"I modeled it on creation stories," she said.
A need for Navajo media
Becker, who attended Brown University and studied anthropology after graduating from Sandia High School, didn't realize that filmmaking would become her life.
A year spent in Americorps at Pueblo Pintado "was when I decided to pursue film, seeing there was a need for it. I saw it was OK for me to pursue this career, that it was important to be working in Navajo media."
At Pueblo Pintado "there's no media aside from radio, no culture from the outside to relate to, after seeing what I did at Brown."
She started taking screen-writing classes at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute and then went on to graduate school at Columbia University School.
She said she knew "the types of stories I wanted to tell are more independent, which probably would be better to be in New York. Now that I'm in LA I'm trying to get a little more commercial in my work."
But being Navajo was always central.
"I would say my Navajo identity has always been important, but it wasn't until I left home and went to college that I understood how unique and special it is to have this background," she said. "I also became politicized when I got educated."
Learning the stories
Did she learn the stories growing up?
"I learned them later when I came back on the reservation," she said. "I took a class at Diné College-Crownpoint with a teacher who is also a Diné medicine man, Davidson Kee James. He's from the Gallup area. There's countless accounts in books, but that was the first time I really learned it."
Becker's mother's family is from the Ojo Encino, N.M., area and her father Herbert Becker, who is of Eastern European ancestry and grew up on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, is a prominent law attorney in natural resources.
What did the stories tell her?
Becker says what she came to understand was, "As far as creation stories, the idea is that our ancestors left the older worlds - once they were no longer inhabitable, the people were facing catastrophe - and emerged into new ones where they took up life.
"Our ancestors brought certain sacred items with them to continue life as Diné," she said, "but would leave the bad stuff that caused them to leave behind. I'm not an expert on these stories, but that's what I've gleaned from them over the years."
Becker enjoyed film school and the exposure to other talented students. She moved to LA at the end of 2006, rooms with a friend from film school, and lives in the Silver Lake area, "where you can walk to things."
She has survived through teaching film in tribal programs and then spent this entire last year on the production of "The 6th World."
"I would love to shoot feature films, I'm looking for an agent," she said, and is also searching for funding for her next projects.
The link to vote for the Audience Award is http://www.facebook.com/futurestates. There, click on the black box that says "Audience Award."