Interview: Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo on his Native American suspense drama 'Mekko'
Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo says the seed for his latest film "Mekko" (screening during the 42nd Seattle International Film Festival) was planted in the isolation he initially felt when he moved from his small Oklahoma hometown to Tulsa. But he connected with an unlikely group of people who possessed an unlikely spirit.
"At first, the only Natives I knew were on the streets," says Harjo, himself a Native American member of the Seminole nation with Muskogee heritage. "There's the usual despair and darkness and alcoholism - all the bad things that come along with being on the street - but they also stuck together. They worked as a family unit. And they were laughing a lot."
"Mekko" is a suspense drama that follows a Native American man released from prison. When he is rejected by his family, he finds camaraderie among other homeless Native people living on the streets of Tulsa, OK. (Watch the trailer)
Harjo says he became close with the Native homeless community in Tulsa while shooting a short documentary several years ago. While getting to know the homeless Native Americans, he says their sense of humor reminded him of home. "They took something that was a hard situation and made the best out of it. Which says something bigger to the resilience of Native people in general. We've had to take hardships and combat them with humor."
Inspired by Werner Herzog's film "Stroszek," Harjo says he set out to make an authentic film about the closely-knit Native homeless community.
"(Herzog) went into these locations and absorbed what was around him and made everything a part of the scene. I couldn't cast a bunch of good-looking extras to play people who have been living on the streets for years. I had to cast real people," Harjo said.
Although Harjo has had three films premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, he says making films focused on Native Americans remains challenging.
"Independent film, in general, is in a place where no one is funding films unless they're ultra low budget," Harjo says. "No one's throwing money at you to make movies about Native Americans. It's hard to get people to pay to market those films. Film is the one thing I truly love the most, but it's also the hardest to get made."
Despite the hurdles, Harjo's film about a group of Native American homeless people has flourished on the film festival circuit. "Mekko" was selected to screen at some of the world's biggest film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, Stockholm Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival and now the Seattle International Film Festival.
"In life, people turn their head and walk away if they see someone homeless," Harjo says. "Making a film about homeless people is, on the surface, not a great idea to try to bring large crowds to see your film - but it's been really great to see people give themselves over to the story. It's a film that really forces people to pay attention to the homeless person that's on screen."