Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is Up Heartbreak Hill about? Who are the characters?

Erica Scharf: Up Heartbreak Hill is a film about identity. It's about the things that define us and the ways that we define ourselves. For Thomas, Tamara and Gabby, we chronicle their senior year at a high school in the Navajo Nation. It's a rural town — it's very remote — and we see the relationships they have evolve, with each other, with their friends, and their families as they figure out — Are they going to stay on the reservation or are they going to leave? — and what the implications of those decisions will be for their community, for their families, for themselves. They wrestle with a lot of different things in making that choice. I think that for them it's a lot weightier than it might be for somebody living elsewhere in America. They're very much connected to their community and they're very much connected to the land that they live on.

But at the same time, there are a lot of challenges in their community and I think that they very much want to help their community. They want to be a part of it, and they realize that in order to do that they might need to leave. But, that raises questions about whether they're going to be able to return.

POV: Situate us, geographically. Where is this town they live in and the reservation?

Erica Scharf: The reservation is actually the largest in America. But the town that Thomas, Tamara and Gabby live in is called Navajo, on the Navajo Nation, and it's in the very northwest corner of New Mexico. It's right on the Arizona border, up in the mountains.

POV: You're from New York. How did you find this story and what attracted you to telling a story from the west?

Erica Scharf: Growing up in New York, everything that I was taught and told about the native community was very much in a context of history, of long ago — it was something that happened hundreds of years ago. There was no emphasis whatsoever put on the modern native community, and it was something that I was really interested in. I felt like there was a real lack of information and if I was feeling that lack of information, I felt like a lot of places and a lot of people probably were.

I had read about some kids out on the Navajo Nation who were phenomenal runners and being an amateur runner myself, I was really drawn to their story and how they were using running as a way to get ahead and carve out a niche for themselves and a life for themselves. I just started putting out some feelers and making some calls to a lot of communities out on the Navajo Nation, different high school principals, high school coaches, to see if there was any interest and the response was really overwhelming.

POV: Tell us a little about your main characters and what about them made you choose them in particular?

Erica Scharf: While I was out on the scouting trip, the first of my subjects that I met was Thomas, and he's just so compelling — from the red Mohawk which catches your eye of course from the beginning to the way that he speaks. He's so well-spoken, he's so articulate, and he was so open and so willing to share his story. I pretty much knew immediately from the first time we sat down and talked to him that he would be featured in the film. I met his dad, Jazz, and I thought that the dynamic between the two of them was so interesting and so compelling because they really trade off between who's the father and who's the son. They love each other, but it's a complicated and it's a challenging relationship. From there I met Tamara and her family, and then Gabby, and I felt like they provided a great counterbalance to Thomas because their family situations and their challenges and just who they are as people is so different. But I think that, together, the three of them really provide an insight and a context into what it's like to grow up in Navajo.

POV: How long did you follow them?

Erica Scharf: For the entirety of their senior year, so about nine or 10 months in totality.

POV: You were back and forth for several weeks at a time?

Erica Scharf: I actually lived in the parking lot of the high school. We had a trailer, a single wide, which was intentional. I think it would have been perhaps easier and more comfortable to fly in and fly out and make the film on my schedule, but I felt like making the film on their schedule was a better way to really get to know them, get to know their community, because I was there for everything all the time. I could literally hear from my kitchen the high school's PA system, so when Thomas got called down to the principal's office I could grab the camera, run down there. I think being there for such huge stretches really helped establish our relationship from the very beginning and helped us to really become a part of the community

POV: Talk a little about the relationship of Thomas and his father. That was relationship that has its ups and downs in the film.

Erica Scharf: Thomas's relationship with his dad was constantly evolving in the time that we were there and obviously long before that. It's difficult because Thomas had a lot of challenges growing up. His dad had such a serious accident when he was still a child and that affected Jazz, that affected his life, but also how he was a parent. He made a lot of mistakes in his life and those decisions and those choices had serious ramifications for Thomas. Jazz was without question his son's biggest supporter. I think he evolved a lot as Thomas got older. He was at every meet that he could possibly get to. He would hitchhike to meets when he didn't have the money to get there and he absolutely wanted what was best for his son. But he wasn't always sure how to make that happen.

POV: One of the themes of the film is the choices and the opportunities that are available for these kids as they're leaving high school. Talk a little about that, particularly in this context of native kids living in small town on a reservation. What kinds of opportunities are available for them?

Erica Scharf: Navajo was a mining town — it was a timber mining town, and that closed down. When that closed down, the mill closed but the town remained without any sort of industry. So, the economic opportunities are incredibly limited. You could be a teacher at one of the schools, or you could work at the gas station or the laundromat. For these kids, I think they realize that staying in this town, on the land that is their land and that they feel so attached to, also comes with some very serious limitations.

I think that there's a lot of emphasis by elders in the community put on the younger generation to go out into the world, get an education, bring those skills back and improve the quality of life for the tribe and for the community. But I think that's a very daunting task for anyone. And, certainly, to ask 17- and 18-year-old kids to go out and do that is a lot. I think that they very much feel that burden of, "How can we do this?" They realize that there are more career opportunities for them elsewhere.

POV: How would you describe this film stylistically or what kind of aesthetic choices did you make in telling this story?

Erica Scharf: I didn't have much of a budget, especially when I was getting started. We didn't have lights, we didn't have much in terms of sound equipment. But I think that those choices were ultimately for the best because it made our production team, which was never more than two people, it made it much more intimate. I think that it really helped, especially in a community that is not terribly used to having cameras following them around.

Since I look like I'm 17, I was able to blend into the high school. I think people thought I was just another student, maybe taking a film class. I think that really allowed the trust to develop quicker and it allowed the kids to feel more comfortable, for their families to feel more comfortable. We could be at a family dinner and it wasn't terribly obtrusive and so ultimately I think that it was the right choice for this film.

POV: What would you say would be the biggest challenge that you had in making this film?

Erica Scharf: I think one of the greatest challenges was doing so much myself. When you're making independent film and especially when you're getting funding into place, you have so wear many hats. I think that another thing that was difficult in making a film about teenagers is that there were times when I was filming something that's happening and I just wanted to put the camera down and say, "Oh m God, don't do that. That's a mistake. You're 17 and you really shouldn't say something like that to a teacher." You really wanted to help them because I was there for such a long time. They're amazing kids and I want what's best for them. There were times when I wanted to absolutely just say, "Do this, apply to this college" or "Don't speak that way to someone." It's a hard balance, I think.

POV: Faced with those challenges, were there times when you just had to put down a camera and say, "Let's talk about this?"

Erica Scharf: Yeah, absolutely. There were certainly times just when the cameras were off, and because I was there in the community for such a long period of time, there were absolutely times when we had conversations about what's going to happen in the future and what are the right choices to make and how do you treat somebody.

POV: Have the kids seen the film yet?

Erica Scharf: They have seen it and watching their reactions to seeing the film for the first time was probably one of the best moments I've had. They were mesmerized and they were crying and laughing. They really responded to seeing it for the first time. They love it. I think certainly some things are hard to watch. It's hard to see really difficult moments that you had, played back on camera. I can't even imagine how difficult that must be for them, but their reaction overall was really positive and it was very emotional. But it was a great moment.

POV: What do you want a public television audience to take away from watching this?

Erica Scharf: My hope is that this empowers kids like Thomas, Tamara and Gabby to make their voices heard and to talk with each other about the decisions that they're facing and how they see their community developing. And I also hope that it opens the lines of communication between kids on the reservation, and kids in other parts of the country to have a dialogue.

I remember asking Thomas one time who he wanted to see the movie and his response was very much that he hoped members of his own community would see it. He was really committed to making this film because he felt like it was so important for the elder generation on the reservation to see that his generation, that high-school kids, were incredibly invested in what was happening and in moving things in a positive direction.