A group of artists from the Four Corners area is seeking Navajo speakers with a knack for storytelling to submit shorts to the first annual Navajo Film Festival.
Tacey Atsitty, a Navajo poet and director of the festival’s organizing board, stopped in Cortez in April during a trip to promote the event in Arizona, New Mexico and Southwest Colorado. She and the rest of the board are asking filmmakers of all ages to submit four-minute films, entirely in the Navajo language, for a potential cash prize and a public screening on June 23. The deadline for submissions is June 2.
Atsitty spoke about the festival at a crowded poetry reading in the Cortez Public Library on April 20. The festival is open to anyone with a camera and an idea, she said.
“You don’t have to be Navajo to do it, so if you want to learn the Navajo language, this is for you,” she said.
Atsitty often incorporates Navajo into her poetry, and she is advertising the festival as a way for others to find more creative uses for it as well.
Michael Lewis, the festival’s website coordinator, accompanied Atsitty to the Cortez poetry event between stops at high schools in the Navajo Nation, where they dropped off festival flyers and encouraged students to participate.
“There are tons of kids on the reservation, off the reservation and in border towns, who do learn Navajo,” he said. “The problem is, we’ve found that the retention’s not really great. It’s like all the white kids who study French, and then they graduate from college, and it’s like they never learned French.”
The festival provides an incentive for those kids to use the language outside the classroom, he said.
But adults are also encouraged to submit films, especially if they have experience in the movie industry. The festival will have a youth and adult category, with cash prizes for first, second and third place in each. The grand prize in the adult category will be $300, with $150 going to the first-place winner in the youth category. Winners in each category will be determined by judges, but filmmakers will also compete for a $50 “audience choice” award.
One of the reasons the festival organizers decided not to restrict submissions to members of the Navajo Nation, Lewis said, is because they want to encourage people to learn the language. According to 2010 Census data, Navajo has only 170,000 fluent speakers in the U.S., and the majority are over 18. Lewis called the language a “national treasure” that must be preserved.
On June 23, up to 24 selected short films will be screened at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington, New Mexico. Films can be submitted at navajofilmfestival.org.
Atsitty and Lewis said they hope to make this the first of many Navajo Film Festivals.