A short film project entitled “Rez,” which features an all Native American cast and tells the story of Daniel Nightbird, an Ojibwe teen living on the Leech Lake Reservation, has been released by Special Boy Films Ltd.
The 19-minute film, which was directed by Dominque Deleon, a young African American filmmaker from NYU, has received praise and social media support from Spike Lee. Due to Lee’s support the project broke records on the Seed & Spark fundraising website as the fastest film to receive full funding within just 72 hours.
The project’s roots date back to 2006, when Deleon was a student at Harvard. His roommate, Duane Meat, an Ojibwe student who had been spending a semester at his home at the Leech Lake Indian Reservation, was tragically murdered by a gang member while walking on a South Minneapolis street.
Before Meat had been murdered, DeLeon had made a promise to his roommate to bring attention to both the beauty and the hardships faced in reservation life. To honor his friend, Deleon lived on Leech Lake for a summer in order to write his film.
“The first week I was on the rez I stayed in a small house with 7 adults and four dogs,” DeLeon recalls. “Across the way in Tract 33, which is portrayed in the film, a jilted boyfriend walked over to the house where his girlfriend was staying and shot her in the face. They had kids together.”
“I realized quickly that even though I’d done my research, even though I’d heard all the stories, nothing was going to prepare me to write this other than living there, being there. “
In addition to honoring his friend, DeLeon also expressed the need for the Native story in film.
“There is no question that the presence of Native American stories has been largely missing from American film narratives. Rez seeks to change that, by showing the humanity in us all,” said DeLeon.
“The film illustrates the plight of the 7th generation, the group of young men and women who have come of age in the time of the 7th fire — present day,” DeLeon says. “In the original prophecy, the task of the 7th generation is difficult: they are given the calling of returning to their people the spiritual ways that have been lost and righting the balance in the world, largely without the help of the older generation.”
“Though a story that originates in native culture, it has wider implications, as in the film, the main character is left to rediscover the nature of the circle, and in doing so find a way to trust and develop his innermost judgment on its own.”
In the short film, which illustrates difficult choices faced by Native teens and the associated risks faced on reservation life, DeLeon made certain there were no overt references to specific gangs nor was their violence.
“There are gangs on the reservation,” he explains, “They do sell drugs and commit acts of violence. But they also provide places to stay and protection for a lot of kids that otherwise would find themselves either homeless or in abusive situations. I don’t think I got it all right. But I do think that I got enough of it right that people really responded to it in that way. And I’m thankful.”
Currently REZ will be making its way through the film festival circuit. According to Executive Producer Tara Ryan of Tijer Lily Co, a Native American Arts and Entertainment Company, the film will available to view after the festival run.