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Filmmaker makes mark with movie featuring Navajo stars

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 10-07

When Travis Hamilton set out to make his first feature length film on the Navajo Nation, he lacked money and experience as a director and had a crew that knew even less about moviemaking than he did.

But neither he nor his crew were short on desire to capture a Navajo story in its true setting.

“It really came down to I believed in them and they believed in me,” he said.

Hamilton now boasts a movie, “Turquoise Rose,” that features Navajos in every Navajo role and a crew that is 90 percent Navajo. That, he believes, is something unique in the film industry

“I really feel that we’re just on the very tip of Native cinema,” he said. “For me, it’s humbling to kind of look and realize I had a little tiny hand in getting some of that moving.”

“Turquoise Rose” is the story of a big-city Navajo girl who has plans to vacation in Europe for the summer with her roommate. But when her grandmother on the reservation becomes sick, she must choose between caring for her or sticking to her vacation plan.

Hamilton crafted the script after being pulled from film school at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona for a 15-month deployment to Iraq. It was there where two Navajo women in his National Guard unit gave him the idea for the story line.

It wasn’t far off from his first short film he had produced in school about a young Navajo girl on the reservation.

“I don’t know why I was writing a chick flick,” he said. “It’s just that that’s what happened.”

Hamilton’s main fear was that his idea would be rejected by Navajos, who he said often are leary of a story being told through the eyes of a non-Native.

“I knew going into what I was trying to do that that would be a factor,” he said. “If I was native, I would feel the same way.”

But Hamilton armed himself with the Navajo cast and crew, cultural advisers, letters of support from tribal leaders and a resume that included at least 12 other productions filmed on the Navajo Nation.

Hamilton also had lived on the vast reservation for two years before he began writing the script for “Turquoise Rose.” As a Mormon missionary, he butchered sheep, hauled wood from the mountains and made bread from scratch.

“It was then up to, ‘Let’s make the best movie we can and let the movie speak for itself,” he said.

Lorie Lee, media production specialist for the Navajo Nation Film Office, said the nearly $1 million film, which debuted in the tribe’s capital of Window Rock, Ariz., has a sense of authenticity not seen in other productions.

“I think it was unique in the way that it was more real,” she said. “People that were a part of that were actually Native Americans, young and also Navajo. They could portray what they were a part of because this is the way that they live.”

Hamilton has two other productions lined up to be filmed on the Navajo reservation, but he said he’s holding off until he breaks even on “Turquoise Rose.”

The film, which for the majority of the actors was their first time on screen, was shown in Gallup this week.

“It was a very true and positive story. In the end, hopefully it fostered pride especially with the youth that they need to stay connected to our traditional homeland,” said Lee, who has seen the film. “What we have as Dine but also knowing we have to live sometimes in the modern world.”