Navajo filmmaker still shining at Sundance

By Bernie Dotson

Gallup Independent

Published: Friday, Jan. 27 2012 12:06 a.m. MST

This undated photo shows actors and crew filming a scene from the movie "Opal" in Tohatchi, N.M. Ramona Emerson swept into Park City, Utah, in 2010 as one of four writers and filmmakers selected to participate in the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Filmmakers Ford Foundation Fellowship Program. Emerson’s Sundance connection continues through this year's festival with “Opal,” a screenplay written, directed and co-produced by Emerson and still making its way through Sundance circles.

Courtesy of Ramona Emerson via Gallup Independent, Associated Press

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GALLUP, N.M. — Ramona Emerson swept into Park City, Utah, in 2010 as one of four writers and filmmakers selected to participate in the Sundance Film Festival's Native Filmmakers Ford Foundation Fellowship Program.

As a part of that program, she worked with industry professionals during what was a five-day intensive workshop. That fellowship continued into 2011, when Emerson, originally from Tohatchi, developed even more professional connections at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

Emerson's Sundance connection continues through the 2012 festival, Jan. 19-29, with "Opal," a screenplay written, directed and co-produced by Emerson and still making its way through Sundance circles.

"We watched films," Emerson said about the Fellowship. "We thought about films. It was an inspiring experience."

"Opal" is a short film about a young Navajo girl who takes on the town bully. When Opal is beat up by the bully, she and her friend Bunny take matters into their own hands.

"The importance of 'Opal' goes beyond just getting my story on the screen," Emerson explained. "It is also a portrait of a tough little girl who won't take no for an answer. It serves as a metaphor for all of the places that little girls aren't allowed to go, the things they are forbidden to do. This is every little Navajo girl's chance to power through diversity, to push by the people who are keeping you from what you want to do."

Raised in Tohatchi and Santa Fe, where her mother attended art school, Emerson said she gravitates toward subjects she encountered as a youngster growing up around the Navajo Nation. Emerson said she chose the name of the film because it relates to a scene that was taken out of the final draft in which Opal's mother has a large opal ring that she received the night Opal was born, so she got two opals on that day, Emerson explained.

"The scene was cut, but the name stayed," Emerson said.

The film, shot mostly around To' hajiilee, is in the final stages of the editing process for yet another evaluative go-round at Park City.

"We began production in late August through October of 2011," Emerson said. "Since everyone on the cast is under 12 years old, we had to work around schedules, during weekends and when we could get our lead actress (Magdalena Begay) into town from Flagstaff, Ariz. The production was spread out over three months, was plagued with unpredictable weather and was very challenging in just about every aspect. But we had a great cast and crew that helped us battle through it all — and we got it done on the first week of October, right before the first big winter storm."

Emerson, along with her husband Kelly Byars, runs an Albuquerque production company called Reel Indian Pictures. Byars, 48, is an actor, educator and film producer. The company makes films and sponsors film programs for young adult filmmakers. Emerson explains that officials at Sundance's Native Film Program were the first to see "Opal," after which it got passed on to the shorts jurors. The Native Film Program scouts Native American artists, taking them through the mechanisms of support at the bigger Sundance Institute to get their work made and shown.

"Yes, Ramona Emerson's film is still technically a part of Sundance," N. Bird Runningwater, who oversees the Native program, said. "I would say it's in the process of development. The institute continues to work with (Emerson)."

Emerson, 38, said she's eager to enter "Opal" again at Sundance come 2013. She said she's also considering putting it up for Sundance's Screenwriting Labs — if not this year, then next.

"I also continue my work with the Milagros at Los Luceros writers program, which is part of (Sundance founder) Robert Redford's new program up in northern New Mexico," she said.

The film festivals where Emerson's films — "The Back Road" (2000), "The Last Trek" (2006) and "The Return Home" (2008) — have been shown include: ImagineNative in Canada, the Native American Film and Video Festival in New York City, and the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.

"I knew at a very young age that I wanted to make films and somehow I have managed to keep at it for many years. The ability to transfer those early memories on the reservation of going to the movies with my grandmother, to the actual reality of making films, has been a dream come true," she said. "'Opal' is a reflection of that and of the personal stories I love to tell. My hope is to create a story that reflects a very true representation of what it's like to grow up on the Navajo Nation, but more importantly, questions the roles of women and girls both on and off the reservation."

Besides readying 'Opal" for entry into the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Emerson said she's working on finishing a documentary entitled "Hidden Talents," about Navajo painter James Woolenshirt King, of Shiprock, N.M.

Information from: Gallup Independent, http://www.gallupindependent.com

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