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Friday, July 11, 2008

Four Sheets to the Wind

Four Sheets to the Wind (2007) stars Cody Lighting
Writer/Director Sterlin Harjo

When I spoke to Sterlin Harjo over dinner at 2021 in the Walker Art Center, I sensed a mild case of exasperation. The Seminole/Creek filmmaker has been traveling, speaking and explaining his 2007 Sundance audience award winner for almost 18 months and is looking to move on.

"Tell us about your film," pleads Catherine Whipple, Managing Editor of The Circle News.

"I don't feel like talking about the film. You'll see it tonight," Harjo replied. I find I admire his straightforward honesty in light of what any PR-minded person would consider an obligation to explain.

An occupational hazard of being a filmmaker is most of your time is spend NOT making films and instead promoting them, finding backers, meeting with distribution and marketing and it is easy to get lost in the wilderness of promotion.

"I couldn't live in Los Angeles. I go there a lot but I would get nothing done if I lived there. Everybody is trying to make a film there so what's the point?" Instead he choses to live in Tulsa, Ohlahoma, "Nobody makes films in Tulsa. I feel like I have a purpose. I'm close to my family. I'm close to my tribe," he says.

Harjo is currently editing his follow-on feature BARKING WATER with Isabel Archuleta and he seems to find sustenance in going back to Tulsa to work on his films.

Four Sheets is a coming-of-age drama set in rural Oklahoma with contrasting urban locations in Tulsa and depicts a young man in search of his identity on the reservation and beyond. Featuring a performance of quiet intensity by Cody Lightning, the film tactfully balances the pathos and humor in the parallel transitions from rural to urban and boyhood to maturity. Lighting is the son of actress/director Georgina Lighting who recently finished directing OLDER THAN AMERICA, shot in northern Minnesota with local producer Christine Walker.

Harjo's feature film restores a faith in filmmakers who chose to live outside the false pretenses of industry movie making with stories fabricated through negotiations with agents, studio development executives, and expectant producers who know little about the subject of their movies but end up dictating the terms of story or character plot to fit their investment package.

Watching Four Sheets gives the sense that you are in the Tulsa that Harjo lives in -- the coffeeshop where Miri Smallhill (played beutifully by Tamara Podemski) works, the bar where Cufe Smallhill goes with Francie, the house party where 20-somethings mix and mingle, asking odd naive questions of each other, resonates as personal detail just as the streets of Ausin, Texas did for Richard Linklater's 1991 indie film SLACKERS.

"The best thing about Sundance Institute is that you make connections with the right people for the right reasons," Harjo explained about his experience with the Labs. Actors, cinematograhers, music composers, casting directors, as he observed, come to Sundance for the love of film and not for the money.

A project of the Sundance Lab, Four Sheets to the Wind won a Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

On The Ice: Masterful Short Story

Sikumi (On the Ice) (excerpts)
in Iñupiaq with English subtitles, 2008, 35mm, 15 minutes

Andrew Okpeaha MacLean has made the first film in the Iñupiaq language and tells the story of an Inuit hunter who drives his dog team out onto the frozen Arctic Ocean and fortuitously witnesses a murder. The short poignant drama won a 2008 Sundance Short Filmmaking Award. Sikumi shows an artistic mastery of simplicity and elegance in capturing a thought-provoking story.

One has to admire MacLeans pitch-perfect balance between what is seen, what is said and what circumstances dictate in the stories unfolding. The director uses just one location, three actors and two dog sled teams to shoot this contemplative moment that makes a viewer prize short storytelling in the film medium.