Art Works Blog

Art Talk with filmmaker Sterlin Harjo

Washington, DC

Sterlin Harjo. Photo courtesy of Mr. Harjo

"Making a film is a very scary thing. You just put your heart into it and hope that things go right." --Sterlin Harjo

Oklahoma filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole and Creek nations, is no stranger to firsts. He was one of the inaugural recipients of the United States Artists Fellowships and also among the first class of the Sundance Institute's prestigious Annenberg Film Fellows. Not surprising for a filmmaker who's been called, " one of the most truthful and honest voices working in American cinema today." Harjo's films have screened at Sundance, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival, and include the poignant roadtrip film Barking Water (2008), and Smiling Indians (2011), a short compilation of Native people smiling that presents a simple but stunning rebuke to the omnipresent image of the stoic Indian. We spoke with Harjo via e-mail about the arts and the artist's life.

NEA: What?s your version of the artist life?

STERLIN HARJO: My version of the artist life is basically trying to keep my lights on. There were a few years where that was an issue. Nowadays I get by a little better. I enjoy living in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I make documentaries about things and people for This Land Press. Hang out with my daughter and drink coffee. That's my version of the artist life.

NEA: What provokes you artistically?

HARJO: Music.

NEA: What are you working on now?

HARJO: Like I said I'm making documentaries for This Land Press. It has been very interesting and rewarding. I'm working on a feature script as well. It's an ensemble comedy about death, life, and love. That's basically what all my films are about. Death, Life, and Love. Probably in that order.

NEA: Why do we---the general public---need film as an artistic medium? Why do you need it?

HARJO: Film pulls together all the mediums and spits them back out at you. It's storytelling and painting. It can make you sad when you're happy and happy when you're sad. It's immediate. Maybe that's not a good thing to have your art be so immediate, but it's what people want.

NEA: What is your definition of creativity?

HARJO: Creativity is thinking about what you're doing despite yourself and your selfishness. It's analyzing the why and how of the world. Whether you try to answer it through art is up to you, but even if you think about the world in which you inhabit from multiple angles you are participating in some sort of creativity.

NEA: What do you think is the role of the artist in the community?

HARJO: Artists are the people you forget about first when you're sailing along, and they are also the people that you turn to first when you're in need. Communities need artists. Not everyone realizes that.

NEA: Conversely, what do you think is the responsibility of the community to the artist?

HARJO: To realize that they need artists.

NEA: One of my favorite arts quotes is from Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington:  ?I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can?I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren?t yet part of our work but should be.? When it comes to filmmaking what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work you or other filmmakers or the arts community is presenting that isn?t there?

HARJO: I think that archiving is missing. My work that I do for This Land is great because I feel like Alan Lomax capturing a time and a period before it disappears. Future generations learn so much from regular people. Yet, Hollywood isn't concerned with regular people. Woody Guthrie was interested in regular people. That's very Oklahoman to me. That's why I'm here.

NEA: At the NEA, we say ?Art Works.? What does that phrase mean to you?

HARJO: Basically it means that Art heals and helps people. It teaches and it makes the world a better place.

NEA: What do you wish I would have asked, and how would you have answered?

HARJO: Do you get tired of people pitching you new story ideas? I would've have answered "Yes!"

Harjo claims music as one of his chief influences. Check out the music video he directed for fellow Oklahoman Samantha Crain.


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