Native filmmaker Maya Dittloff talks about her directorial debut 'Perma Red'

Directed by Native filmmaker Maya Ditloff, Salish author Debra Magpie Earling's novel, Perma Red, is in pre-production and slated to be released in 2019.

Salish author Debra Magpie Earling's novel, Perma Red, is in pre-production and slated to be released in 2019.

Maya Dittloff, Blackfeet, Chippewa, and 3 Affiliated Tribes, who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana, says that as a Native woman, she stands as the antithesis of what Hollywood has presented as who should be able to make films.

Dittloff will be at the helm as director and writer of the television series adaptation of Salish author Debra Magpie Earling's novel, Perma Red, which is now in pre-production and slated to be released in 2019. It’s based on the life of a young, free-spirited Salish woman, Louise White Elk, during the 1940s on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Maya Dittloff will be at the helm as director and writer of the television series adaptation of Salish author Debra Magpie Earling's novel, Perma Red

In an industry dominated by males who’ve long controlled the narrative of onscreen indigenous people, Dittloff says the production team consisted of mostly females and Native Americans.

Indian Country Today caught up with the soon to be 21-year-old student at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and television, to ask about her directorial debut and what it means to be an indigenous woman director in an industry not always friendly to women or diversity.

When did you first gain in interest in film-making?

I’ve been interested in the world of entertainment and storytelling since I was 4-years-old. I was in kindergarten in my first theater production, and have been doing acting, stage managing, and directing ever since. With thousands of hours immersed into this interactive mode of storytelling -- this road to Los Angeles led me to become accepted at UCLA to the school of Theater, Film, and Television — where I’ve learned the nitty gritty details of what it means to be a filmmaker: How to hold a camera, how to act on set, things like that.

What drives you?

The thing that drove me forward on this road was I knowing I could be doing nothing else in life but telling stories and increasing representation for my people. The ultimate tool of film-making is that you have the ability to see into another person’s life for 30 or 45 minutes if it’s a TV show, or more if it’s a movie. I think film is the best universal method to invoke empathy in people, and I’m drawn like a moth to a flame to that.

How did you land your role as director?

Because I had grown up in theater, I actually went in for the audition for the role of Louis White Elk because I enjoy acting and there are so few roles for Native actors. Plus, I wanted to see if they were faithful to casting actual Native Americans from around the Montana area—and I am through and through a Montanan. They did not choose me, but did keep my information on hand. When they were looking for a director and I told them I was UCLA educated—one of the best film schools in the world—it piqued their interest. They called on me to pitch my idea for the project and what my vision for it would be.

I put together a directive statement, sent it their way, and they liked me best! I also think a lot of the reason I was chosen was because I’m close to the age of Louise White Elk, so I’m able to identify with her as a young Native person trying to navigate this world, so to speak.

In addition, my entryway into Perma Red includes trying to find the find the beauty in things often deemed irrelevant or unnecessary—or just overlooked—such as the power and strength of Native women.

What’s the importance of filming on location on Salish lands in Montana?

First and foremost, we have to consider Native values and ethics and connection to the land. All these places Louise goes to and lives in are integral to the story of Perma Red and who she is, and who she is as a Native woman. Without that you’re missing one of the main characters of the story if you’re not shooting on Salish land and all those ancestral places. The lifeblood of what keeps Louise going is her land and family.

Why is it important that a Native woman direct this?

I think right now we are at a crossroads in the entertainment industry and people are finally becoming cognizant of the fact that storytelling and film-making and television has been dominated by this one voice, and they carry with them this very specific set of stories and this very specific mindset.

As a Native woman, I’m the antithesis of what Hollywood has presented of who should be able to make films. We want to build a movement with Perma Red so we can reclaim our history, our culture, and we can say, ‘This is how it is, this is authentic and true.’

The issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women especially in this past year has been prolific in Montana and Indian country as a whole, and Perma Red specifically focuses on Native women, their vitality, their hopes, their strengths and shows the good side and humanity of what it means to be a Native American woman. Right now I feel that one of the biggest issues people have is they don’t know what the issues are as a whole and how it affects us, and I think Perma Red as a project will act as a tool to fight to tell that story—to fight for me.

Being so young, are you at all nervous about being thrown into directing a project of this magnitude?

I think I was kind of destined to do this. I think there’s a part and combination within me of having read thousands and thousands of books and sitting there watching thousands of movies that has reflected into my role as director of Perma Red with me saying, “If I were a child again, what would I want to see in books, in tv—how would I want to see myself reflected? And I know I want to see strong Native women, because I’ve had that reflected in my life; but the rest of America seems to think of America only as alcoholics, as depressed and sad, and there’s this very singular narrative of what it means to be Native American, and that right there is the perception I want to break.

Perma Red will be filmed on location in Western Montana on the Flathead Indian Reservation, home of the Bitterroot Salish, Kootenai, and Pend d'Oreilles Tribes.

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