I’m still with her
Though filmmaker Valerie Red-Horse Mohl never got the chance to personally meet Wilma Mankiller, she feels as if she were born to create the new documentary, Mankiller, which relates the saga of the only woman ever to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The similarities in the biographies of the two women are uncanny. Both are Cherokee tribal members, but rather than growing up on the Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, Mankiller and Red-Horse Mohl were raised in the San Francisco Bay area, after their fathers joined programs aimed at relocating Native workers from rural areas to more populated urban hubs.
After Mankiller died in 2010, Red-Horse Mohl said she began talking with programmers at PBS, saying, “Maybe we should think about doing a picture about her real-life story.” Red-Horse Mohl said she was drawn by Mankiller’s groundbreaking status as well as her leadership style, which involved trying to speak with anyone and everyone, building a consensus approach that would hopefully unite all interested parties.
“I see this film as so much more than a biography,” the director said in statement about the film. “I believe it actually is a wake-up call. Wilma lived her life with the philosophy of ‘Ga-Dugi,’ which translated means ‘in a good way’ — and our goal is that we embody ‘Ga-Dugi’ on this project to honor her.”
Mankiller is the opening-night film in the Native Cinema Showcase, curated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, working in cooperation with the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts (sponsors of the Santa Fe Indian Market). The film plays at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 15, at the New Mexico History Museum (113 Lincoln Ave.). Admission is free on a first-come, first-served basis. Red-Horse Mohl is slated to attend the screening, along with her producer, Gale Anne Hurd, who is best known as an executive producer for the horror series The Walking Dead on AMC. Hurd also produced most of the Terminator movies, as well as The Abyss, Aliens, and other top-flight sci-fi features. The two might not seem like natural partners, but this is the third documentary they’ve made together, following True Whispers in 2002 and Choctaw Code Talkers in 2010.
Hurd said she originally wanted to make a feature film about the famous Navajo code talkers from World War II and began talking with Red-Horse Mohl about directing that film, after seeing and enjoying the director’s 1998 debut feature, Naturally Native. Red-Horse Mohl agreed to make the film, but persuaded Hurd to drop the idea of a dramatic feature and instead make a documentary (True Whispers). Since then, the two have made new documentaries like clockwork, every seven years or so.
Red-Horse Mohl described Hurd as not only a close friend but also someone with an incredible knack for telling stories through film, a producer who is always able to spot potential weaknesses and recommend changes that will strengthen the final picture. For her part, Hurd said she learned from some of cinema’s greatest masters, having entered the business working as an executive assistant to Roger Corman and later marrying directors James Cameron and Brian De Palma.
Mankiller premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June. Additional film-festival screenings are planned through the fall, with an eventual airing on PBS sometime in 2018. Hurd said there could also be a theatrical release for the film, as a few distributors have expressed interest, but nothing concrete has been signed as of yet.
In the meantime, Red-Horse Mohl has a couple of projects she’s pursuing — a documentary that examines Native sports mascots and a dramatic feature about Standing Bear, the Ponca chief who advanced arguments in the 18th century to establish rights for Native Americans as “persons within the meaning of the law.” Hurd’s upcoming schedule includes another project of local interest — a sci-fi television series based on The Chronicles of Amber, the epic fantasy series by longtime Santa Fe resident and late novelist Roger Zelazny. Valhalla Entertainment, Hurd’s production company, will be involved, along with Universal Cable Productions. — J.B.