Art Talk with filmmaker Ramona Emerson
Ramona Emerson. Photo courtesy of Ms. Emerson
"As an artist... you are the historian. You're telling people what your society was like at that moment in time." --- Ramona Emerson
It's not surprising that filmmaker Ramona Emerson grew up to be an artist. Growing up with a visual artist mother---Bobbi Emerson Kitsman---Emerson spent her early life surrounded not just by the arts but by practicing artists in a multitude of disciplines. What may be surprising is that Emerson credits Charles Bronson and Spike Lee with helping to form her sensibilities as a young filmmaker. These days Emerson helms her own production company Reel Indian Pictures with her husband Kelly Byars, a filmmaker and sculptor. In 2010, Sundance selected Emerson as a Native Filmmakers Ford Foundation Fellow; her most recent film is the short narrative Opal, In her own words, here are Emerson's thoughts on a number of topics, including the challenges of being a woman filmmaker, the importance of teaching filmmaking to Native youth, and the powerful influence of her mother and her grandmother Minnie Emerson on her life as an artist.
On her version of the artist’s life…
I guess [the artist’s life is] doing anything and everything you can to create your art. That's basically where it all stems from. I think I got a lot of that from my mom. She's an artist, and I grew up experiencing the hardships of being an artist and of struggling to survive as an artist---to sell your work and things like that. I mean, our livelihood depended on whether or not she sold a painting that month and a lot of months she did not. So for me, now that I have a son and I have a family... it's doing whatever I have to do. Whether I have to make a video for someone else, or work on anyone else's movie or do anything I need to do---so I can go back and create the art I want to do…. [I]t's a lot of sacrifice. It's a lot of passion. You really have to love what you're doing and have to be willing to sacrifice anything for it, basically. I think that's basically the art of life. Being willing to make that sacrifice and being willing to put everything on the line for your art.
“All of my life I’ve been with art and with people who make art. For me there is no other life.”
When I was a child, I engaged in art every day. I mean, my mom was an artist, yes, but I was raised around a community of artists…. I was raised in Santa Fe, and my mother went to the Institute of American Indian Art when I was a child. She went there for many years because she was a single mom and it took her a long time to graduate. So I had direct interaction with many, many very important Native-American artists. People that have become icons of Native-American art were my babysitters…. I hung out at their studios; I spent all my childhood with them. Sculptors, painters, poets, musicians, actors---anyone and everyone that you can possibly imagine being involved in the arts were people that were in my mom's house every day.
I drew. I did pencil drawings. I did watercolors, I did printmaking, I did all of those things. I watched my mom do etchings. I watched my mom do silk screens. I watched all of these artists do all of these things…. [A]ll of my life, I've been with art and with people who make art. For me, there is no other life…. So, I've always been an artist I think, in my heart. My mom and my grandmother also used to always tell me don’t be an artist. It's a terrible life and it's a life of heartbreak and it's a life of hardship…. I couldn't help but do it….
On falling in love with filmmaking…
I think I was seven or eight, and my grandmother took me to see The Shining---which is shocking in itself that my grandmother would take me to see The Shining when I was eight! But, I begged her…. [M]ovies were just ingrained in me. When my grandma took me to see The Shining, I remember everything about that experience. Sitting in the movie theater, I remember my feet were sticky on the floor. I remember watching the reflection of the film on my grandmother's face when we were watching it. I remember everything; I can smell the popcorn. That was 30 years ago. When I walked out of that theater, I think then, even though I didn't know it, I think then I had become a filmmaker. I think at that point in my life everything that happened to me, every experience that I had, I [would] put it in the context of a movie. What would Charles Bronson do? What would so and so do in this situation?... I think I related to my own life through film. I figured out ways to tell my stories in a very cinnematic way. Everything was very dramatic, everything was framed a certain way with these people doing these things in that frame…. That was my beginning of having passion for something. More than just being an artist and drawing pictures, this was something I could put a finger on, and say that's something I really love and I really want to do. [When I was in high school] there was a switch that went off in my brain that told me, "You can be a filmmaker." You don't have to paint, you don't have to be an Indian artist to do all these things. You can do movies. I think for me, up until that point, it seemed like a goal so far out of reach that I never could even have imagined some little Navajo girl from way out in the middle of nowhere doing things like Kubrick and Spielberg.
Finally I think I went to see a Spike Lee movie with my mom I begged her to take me and keep me out of school because I really wanted to see Mo’ Better Blues. I had seen Do the Right Thing. I had seen She's Gotta Have It [and] School Daze. I had seen all those Lee films and I really wanted to see this new one…. I watched the craft of it. I watched Ernest Dickerson’s cinematography more than I was even watching the story…. There's this whole scene where the room is spinning, and there's something about that scene and there's something about that moment in my life where I realized that that's what I'm going to do---I'm going to do things like this. Look at these shots. Look at these beautiful shots. Look at the psychological and the emotional impacts that the way you frame the camera can have on audiences and the way you think about people and love and passion. All of that kind of all culminated at once for me. I got out of that movie theater, and I remember telling my mom, "Mom, this is what I'm going to do. I'm going to be a filmmaker." She was just laughing, and she said, “Well, I think we all knew that.”
I remember she took me straight to this bookstore. She said, Well, let's go get a book since you're on this heat right now.” Spike Lee used to make journals that went along with all of his films… and she bought me all of these. And I sat there and I read them for two weeks. I still have them. I still reference them. Especially when I'm in production and I'm feeling pretty crappy, I'll go in there and I'll read the whole passage about how he lost his funding and he's back to ground zero. You read stuff like that, and it reminds you it happens to everybody.
My grandma and my mother really did everything they could to encourage me once I finally snapped myself about what was going to happen. My mom bought me all kinds of books. My mom took me to the movies, even if I wanted to get out of school to go. My grandmother bought me my first camera…. Even though they didn't want me to be an artist, I think they knew at some point there was just no way they could keep me from it.
“I think as an artist one of your biggest obligations is to tell the truth.”
[A]t film school I kept taking cameras out of the [equipment] cage… and I would always bring [them] back late. They always would call my grandma and say, "Where's your granddaughter? We can't find the camera---she's been gone for a week." So, she finally bought me one. The first thing I did with the camera was film her…. I would just sit with her and talk to her, and she would tell me stories and ask me mundane questions. She'd tell me to chop the weeds, whatever. I would sit there and I would let the camera roll. Mostly because I would miss her, it would help me to just put the tape on and hear her in the background. Now I cherish those tapes because it was me documenting this woman that was so important to me. I knew at that point I always had her face, I always had her stories, and I always had her voice on camera if I ever felt like I was forgetting her or forgetting what she sounded like or what she looked like. I knew then how important media was to me and how important that active documenting was. Not only for me personally, but beyond that into how important it is to document people, realities, the truth.
I think as an artist one of your biggest obligations is to tell the truth---that’s our gift, that we're able to do that. Now, as a media maker, as a filmmaker, I think that responsibility goes even deeper, especially for me as a Native filmmaker. When I first started making films, one of the main catalysts of making films was to change the roles and the implications and the stereotypes that had flooded every film and every aspect of media as far as [who] Native Americans were. That was one of my main things---to make films so that I can get rid of these stereotypes, so people can really see how Native America is, so people can see how we truly live. I had no idea that so many people think we all live in teepees, and we all still wear buckskin and run around in feathers. I mean, there really are people who think that. They don't know about Native America. And, of course, what the media shows them and what they see on the Internet and on TV and in the movies isn't helping.
So, when I say the most important element for me is the truth, when I make films, I make films about real women, real people, very close, personal stories that show exactly how we're living. As a documentarian, I never set up things. I try not to do any kind of reenactment; that's not what I'm interested in. I'm interested in showing life as it is. I'm interested in showing people as they live in that life, in that place, in that time right now. I am not trying to manipulate anyone; I'm just trying to tell the truth. I'm trying to tell people exactly how it is. When I'm not making documentaries and I'm making fiction or short films, I tell stories that have been told to me. Or that happened to me. Because I know they're true. I've experienced it. I was there, I saw it.
“They don’t tell enough stories about women.”
All the characters in my films have been women. I don't think they tell enough stories about women. Nobody tells stories about women, and it's all testosterone-driven, it's all action packed… The way they subjugate women, I mean all of it just drives me crazy. The more I see it, the more I feel an obligation to counteract that. …. I'm here to tell you the truth. I'm here to show you people as they really are. I mean, when we were casting our short Opal, the last one that we did, it was very important for me to make these little girls exactly how I remembered being when I was a girl. That included one little girl who was kind of a tomboy, you know, one little girl who was really chubby. They don't do that anymore. That's what real girls look like. That's what real girls do. They don't have to be beautiful. They don't have to be perfect. They don’t have to be 40 pounds. They're real women. This is what they really look like. This is their strength, and their passion, and how they really live. Look at how strong and wonderful they are. For me that's important---getting that kind of truth out there. Getting that kind of story out there.
On being a woman filmmaker…
I think I'm finally coming to terms with the fact that filmmaking is a man's game and the film industry is a man's world, and when you're a woman--and especially a female director, especially a female director of color---I'm just amazed by the level of, it’s just that the level of respect that people give you... is nothing. I've been questioned and double questioned by crews of men who don't think I know what I'm talking about…. You'd be very surprised by how, as a female artist, you're not respected. I mean, you can look at the disparity in female directors in Hollywood and you can see that's why. Before, I just always thought there's just not a lot of female directors out there. I think there are a lot of female directors out there, and I think they get frustrated by the attitude of men in Hollywood, and the attitude of people who work on their crews, and you know, for me, I've seen it first hand. I've seen people not think I know what I'm talking about when I'm telling them to do something, to the point where I'm just like "Okay, well if you don't want to do it, pull the crane down and I'm going to take that camera off the hook myself and put the camera I want on there and I'm going to do what I want to do.” They don’t want to listen to me.
That kind of thing has forced me to know everything I can about filmmaking. So I know every job. So if I get any lip from anybody on my crew, maybe the gaffing person's giving me problems, maybe my lighting person's giving me problems, I know how to fix lighting, I know how to do the gaffing. I know how to run my camera. So if you don't want to cooperate with me, I'll do it myself. That’s just part of who I am.
I grew up with really strong women. The Navajo tribe is a very matrilineal society and I think a lot of the women in my family were super strong. We never depended on men.… I'm glad I was raised that way because it makes my feelings less hurt when they think I'm an idiot on the set. Because I can go over there and just do it myself. A lot of the times that's what I end up doing---it ends up being my husband and me doing everything a lot of the time, because he's pretty much the only one that knows I know what I'm doing and never second questions me…. [It’s] a struggle to be a woman filmmaker. It's always going to be a struggle, and it's something I'm comfortable dealing with now. I think maybe ten years ago, I was a lot more insecure about it, but now that I've done it for so long, I just realize that it's just like grandma said: If somebody doesn't want to do it right, you've got to get up and do it yourself.
On Charles Bronson as the inspiration for Opal…
Opal is about a little girl who is basically told by the big town bully that she can't come and play [at a certain place] because it's somewhere where the boys play. [The girls][ try to ride their bikes on the big jumps where the boys go and the boys are like, "You guys are a bunch of girls. Get out of here---no girls allowed!" The story is about how [Opal] comes back and challenges [the bully] to a race…. And she wins, and she gains the right to be there back for the girls in the community. I think while the story is cute, it's about these little girls who are strong and who fight back and get what they want. It's also a huge metaphor for other things.
[The character Opal] really likes Charles Bronson…. That's because I grew up watching Charles Bronson. My grandma loved Charles Bronson. We watched Death Wish, we watched them all. Grandma was into Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson. So, I grew up watching that. That was part of my inner psyche as a little girl---being tough and getting revenge…. We have this whole scene in Opal [in which] she thinks about how she's going to get back at this little boy in her mind. For me, that's the kind of thing you can do with your art that counteracts the things you see. But at the same time I can go take Opal, and I can put her in a Charles Bronson movie that was supposed to be about Charles Bronson being an Indian or "half breed Indian" and I can take that role and make it a little Navajo girl and change it. This little girl is transcending that. She's tough. She can be just as bad as Charles Bronson.
[Opal is] basically a Western with little kids in it. You take everything you've learned and watched in these old bad movies growing up, and you have your own reaction to that. For me, that was taking all of this subjugation of women, this subjugation of Native people and these Native films, and turning them on their heads by putting a little Navajo girl in this [tough-guy] role and flipping it on its side. Making her tough, making her never say never. Transcending any kind of gender issues. Reclaiming the Western genre for ourselves. That's what I try to do. I try to take things that… made me angry in the past and make something so directly responsive to that that it harnesses and takes all of that back from the evil, takes it all back and puts our own strength on top of it…. That's what's just awesome about filmmaking. Any bad movie you went to see out there, you can change it, make your own good movie.
All of these other films I'm working on at the moment---I'm writing a couple of different screenplays right now and then we're doing two different documentaries as well---every single one of these stories has a common thread. They're strong, independent, Native people, and they're changing their lives, their communities, and their own psyches in these films. They're creating their own lives for themselves. It doesn't matter what anybody put into their movie 30 years ago [or] what No Doubt put in their video last week. It doesn't matter. If we want to reclaim that for ourselves, then we need to do it for ourselves. That's what it all boils down to. That's what's important to me in every single film I make. We tell our own story.
On getting young people involved in filmmaking…
We've worked on four or five different [filmmaking] workshops. Basically what we do is we go to underrepresented communities, communities that are way out there…. For me, it's always been important to share what we know with Native kids. I think when you live out on a reservation, and especially a Navajo reservation, it's very depressing. It seems like---when you're a kid growing up out there---it seems like there's no way out. There's no way that you're ever going to experience a successful life. There're no jobs for you. The education isn't all that great. There's so much poverty…. When you live in that kind of place, you can kind of forget where your dreams went.
Running these workshops is extremely important. It reminds these kids that there's a world out there way beyond these walls that are called the reservation. You can go out there, and you don't have to be a filmmaker and you can make something of yourself, and if you want to come home, if you want to get back into your community and change your community, going and leaving that place and having dreams and having a direction to put those dreams in is very important. We try to teach [the students] as much as we can about media and about how it can change your life, and how you can do things with media that can help your community, that can help you get into college. that can help you get out of this place that you think you have no future in. So, for us that's very important.
We've also done workshops in urban areas with Native kids. In that context, it's very important for them to be able to tell their stories…. We like to let them tell their own stories…. We want them to make professional looking videos so they can go out and do things in their own community after we're gone. For me that's so important, because when I was a kid and I was… doing this stuff, I was so desperate to meet people who did filmmaking, so desperate to meet another Native person that made a movie or that knew how to run a video camera. I could never find them. I never could find anyone that could help me and mentor me in that way.
Then when I did later on in my teenage years, when I did meet these people who could possibly mentor me, who were the beginnings of Native cinema, they just kind of blew me off and treated me like I was some little punk kid who's bugging them.… I vowed then when I was a teenager that if there was any kid that ever came up to me and had that same kind of passion in their eyes and that desperate need to make film on their faces, I would never ever tell them to get out of here. Now, I'm very open to anyone that wants to talk about film, or maybe they wrote a script and they want me to read it and tell them what I think. Maybe they need me to come help them on camera, or teach them how to do good sound, or which camera should I use or any question they have. They know my website, they know my phone number. I'm very accessible. I don't tell them, “I'm too busy I can't talk to you.” That is totally against everything I've stood for in my life.
I think my grandma told me the best when I was young. She gave me a book called The Giving Tree. Inside she inscribed, "When you give, give yourself." I got that book when I was really young, [and] I still have it and I still look at that and I realize that that's the best thing that I can do, to be there for these kids who are coming up now, who are in there 20's…. Because I don't want to do this forever. I want to be an old lady someday, and I want to see good quality films coming out when I'm old and too tired to make movies anymore. I want to see these kids still making movies---for us, for our people, and show people how this world is changing….. You don't even have to make films about Native people. You could make films about whatever you want. The point is that you're making art and you're making films…. Seeing these kids now, go out and start making scripts, and getting into all these fellowships, and stuff, for me, that's a huge reward. We see beyond me making my films, which is one thing, but we're touching people. We're creating films that will exist far beyond our lifetime.
“As an artist…you are the historian. You’re telling people what your society was like at that moment in time.”
I think as artists we are the pulse of the world in our society. What we create as artists---whether it be a painting or a book or a photograph or a film---is something that drives how people think, and how people observe and what people think about you and what people think about your people, about what's happening in your world. Especially in this kind of digital age, where everything's on Facebook, everything's on the Internet, everything's on YouTube. Everything's so accessible that it's even more important now as an artist to make sure that you tell the truth. Things that are uncomfortable, maybe some people don't want to face, don't want to admit, or look at it---it's your job to make them look at it. Even if it's for five seconds, you've changed a perspective. You've affected them immediately. You've affected them forever. That is the strength and the importance of the art. That's why art works.
You may have put three or four days of work into a painting, and for you that's everything. Maybe somebody buys it. Maybe somebody doesn't. But for you, it's always a snapshot of that point in time and that point of history and that point at that time where you were standing. As an artist that's so important. You are the historian. You're telling people what your society was like at that moment in time: what the light was like, what the weather was like, what these people were like, what language they spoke. All of it is just so important as an artist.