Restless Natives take Manhattan and the film world

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by Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country

Tvli Jacob and Steve Judd of Restless Natives outside The New World Theater in NYC

Photo by Sandra Hale Schulman

Oklahoma filmmaker Steve Judd (Kiowa/Choctaw) and his friend and business partner, fellow filmmaker, Tvli Jacob (Choctaw) were pretty unmissable as they came striding up West 50th Street in Manhattan’s Theater district this fall. Fresh from the airport, wearing their company name on their T-shirts, and dragging their suitcases behind them, the giddy filmmakers were ushered into The New World Stages Theater for a screening of their short film for the Comedy Short Cuts 2007 sponsored by NBC.

The duo made a very short film – 40 seconds – called Mac-PC Spoof that finds a fiercely dressed Native and a goofy white businessman discussing New World events in America since Columbus.

The film was part of a competition sponsored by NBC looking for diverse comedy short films. The competition was down to eight films – out of hundreds submitted – with the winner receiving a pilot script deal through the TV network.

Hosted by the cast of the Emmy-winning show 30 Rock, Steve and Tvli’s film was quick, clever and offbeat. Other entries showcased Latin themes, a Japanese cartoon, and a film called The Fat Girl’s Guide to Yoga. Winners will be announced in October.

Comedy Short Cuts showcase is much more than presenting movies, their goal is to display and celebrate diversity in entertainment. This is the ultimate showcase for filmmakers, writers and directors from all over the country. It provides creative individuals an opportunity to get their materials in front of key decisions makers from the entire NBC Universal family as well as agents, managers, producers, and other industry players.

In addition to meeting television and feature film executives from NBC Universal, select films will be aired on The Sundance Channel, included in the Just For Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, presented with a pilot script commitment from Universal Media Studios, and much more.

In future years, the Advisory Board seeks to create a full-fledged film festival that will further celebrate diversity efforts within NBC Universal and help emerging artists develop their voice and learn how to navigate the array of distribution platforms and opportunities now available.

While Steve and Tvli, whose company is called Restless Natives, are hopeful to win, they have already made quite a mark in the Native film world.

Their 2003 film, American Indian Graffiti, won Best Picture at the Cherokee Film Festival in 2004. The film features Terri Poahway, Steve Judd (Reservation Warparties, Elizabethtown, Return To Sender, Sooner Magic, America’s Most Wanted), Raven Lockwood, Yvonne Russo, Kimberly Norris (The Sopranos, Hidalgo, Charmed, DreamKeeper, Walker:Texas Ranger, Knight Rider, Seinfeld, Geronimo, Northern Exposure) , Geoffrey Betts, Brian Frejo (The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Murder She Wrote).

“The movie is about Native Americans in a contemporary setting,” said co-director, co-writer, and co-star Judd. “Kimberly Norris Guerrero, who was in Dreamkeeper and Seinfeld (in the cigar store Indian episode), flew in from Los Angeles to do a part in our film. Yvonne Russo, who helped produce Naturally Native, Chris Freihofer, who was in O and Eye of God, the artist Richard Ray Whitman, and the rest of the leads are all American Indians from Oklahoma.”

The film is set in a fictional town and intertwines the stories of four individuals over a summer. Judd likens the structure to Paul Thomas Anderson’s modern classic Magnolia, where the separate stories slowly come together at the end of the narrative. He said that, like graffiti, it all becomes one big picture.

“The main story is about two girls who graduated out of high school and, like a lot of people, they talk about going to California or New York when they graduate, but one of the girls decides she wants to work in the summer and go to school,” Judd said. “The other girl, unbeknownst to her friend, is dying, and this will be her last trip so, they get into an argument about it. The mother and the twin sister of the girl that wants to go to school both died when she was born. The girl always wondered why she lived, but it turns out the secret everyone knew, but her, was that her mother tried to abort her. That part is about her coming to acceptance, and about the girls’ friendship.”

“The other story, featuring Richard Ray Whitman in the lead, is about a mechanic who had a drunk driving accident when he was in his twenties that killed his wife and his son. His mother lived, but she doesn’t want anything to do with him, so he’s a loner, almost suicidal. One day a 7-year-old girl wanders into his shop, her mother didn’t want to take care of her; she’s always out with the guys. It’s about the unlikely friendship between the girl and the man.”

“The third story is about an artist who, since he was a little kid, has never seen a blank canvas,” Judd continued. “There was always a picture on every canvas he sees, so he paints over the pictures. He becomes famous and is about to become the next big thing, then all of the sudden he loses his artistic ability when he sees a blank canvas for the first time in his life, and it follows his downward spiral from there. The film goes back and forth from story to story; everyone is involved in each other’s story.”

Judd wanted to make a movie that not only reflected American Indian life, but his own experience of growing up in Oklahoma, where Native culture is integrated into mainstream society.

“When I was growing up I probably liked more mainstream films, while Tvli was really into foreign films and art films,” Judd said. “When I a kid I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and I realized there was never a movie where I could see someone who looks like me. It’s not that I couldn’t identify with the film, I would go home and pretend to be Indiana Jones, but I could never say ‘Wow! That could be me.’ Tvli and I wanted to make movies that could star any nationality. Our movies are about Native Americans, but it doesn’t focus on the phenomenon of being Native American. There are plenty of movies that do that, and I love them, but we wanted to get a different take on it. Also, most films about Native Americans are usually about some northern tribe out on the reservation. Of course, if you talk to Indians in Oklahoma, it’s slightly different.”

American Indian Graffiti was shot on digital video and Judd described it as “a zero budget film. “American Indian Graffiti is not a movie for everyone,” Judd said. “It’s not artsy, in the sense that you’ll see a cow walking out of the middle of nowhere, but it’s artsy in that you would see it more in art theaters, because it is on digital video, and it’s character driven. It’s a slice of life.”

Judd is so committed to his filmmaking he even submitted to a medical experiment that paid $1,800 for one day. They shot him up with E. coli and said it would feel like the flu.

“I’ve had the flu before, and it wasn’t that bad, so I thought it sounded O.K.,” Judd said. “I should’ve known something was up when the experiment took place in an I.C.U. The pain was so bad I was willing to let them keep the money if it would just end. It was crazy, but I made it through and got my check!”

A year or so ago Judd came across an article written about the life of musician Jesse Ed Davis. He quickly telephoned Tvli as the two had never heard of Jesse Ed Davis, and his story fascinated both of them. So they are now making a documentary on him and trying to get Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

A full-blooded Kiowa Indian, Jesse Ed Davis was perhaps the most versatile session guitarist of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Whether it was blues, country or rock, Davis’ tasteful guitar playing was featured on albums by such giants as Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, John Lennon and John Lee Hooker, among others. It is Davis’ weeping slide heard on Clapton’s “Hello Old Friend” (from No Reason to Cry), and on both Rock n’ Roll and Walls & Bridges, it is Davis who supplied the bulk of the guitar work for ex-Beatle Lennon.

Born in Oklahoma, Davis first earned a degree in literature from the University of Oklahoma before beginning his musical career touring with Conway Twitty in the early ‘60s. Eventually the guitarist moved to California, joining bluesman Taj Mahal and playing guitar and piano on his first three albums. It was with Mahal where Davis was able to showcase his skill and range, playing slide, lead and rhythm, country and even jazz guitar during his three-year stint.

The period backing Mahal was the closest Davis came to being in a band full-time, and after Taj’s 1969 album Giant Step, Davis began doing session work for such diverse acts as David Cassidy, Albert King and Willie Nelson. In addition, he also released three solo albums featuring industry friends such as Leon Russell and Eric Clapton.

In and out of clinics, Davis disappeared from the music industry for a time, spending much of the ‘80s dealing with alcohol and drug addiction. Just before his death of a suspected drug overdose in 1988, Davis resurfaced playing in the Graffiti Band, which coupled his music with the poetry of American Indian activist John Trudell.

“We will be doing more interviews for our Jesse Ed Davis documentary, we already have a few under our belt,” Judd says. “We will be shooting at the Blues Hall of Fame in Tulsa, Okla. Among the people we will interview that day will be Jimmy “Junior” Markham.”

All of this is keeping these Restless Natives pretty busy. A clothing company, workshops, and various other projects are on the slate too.