There’s only one moment in “Scenes from a Glittering World” in which you can see the movie that Jared Jakins originally set out to make at Navajo Mountain High School in San Juan County, Utah, sitting in on a parent-teacher meeting for Noah Begay, who lowers his head and tinkers around with a remote control car he built from scratch as his future at the school is being discussed essentially without him. Jakins had first been drawn to Noah because of the car – or rather what it represented when the high school of just 30 students fielded a robotics team, but as the scene wears on, it makes sense why the filmmaker grew more intrigued about everything that was happening around the shiny object in the center of frame, with Noah’s grandparents having to hear how he’s fallen behind as a result of absences he’s accrued en route to graduation and Noah, eerily unmoved, fixates on the car when you know his mind is elsewhere.
At the edge of Navajo Nation, Jakins captures the chasm between the illusion of seemingly limitless possibilities of a place where physically nothing ever gets in the way of a beautiful sunset yet when following Begay, Granite Sloan and Illi Neang, all students at Navajo Mountain High who are starting to think about what life might look like after they get their diploma, the future seems murky at best. While Noah can feel free getting lost in endless hours of Fortnite at home, relishing being able to become whoever he wants in the video game, Granite’s dreams of playing basketball professionally are cut short not by his own talent but the fact that there aren’t enough players for a team at his school and Illi thinks she’d make a good suicide prevention counselor, given how many friends she’s had to care for. Although Navajo Mountain High would appear to offer opportunity with its well-equipped facilities and its well-meaning (albeit largely caucasian) staff, the small class size is causing administrators to reconsider resources and appears to make its students less attentive than more, with reasons for not attending ranging from increasing apathy to the fact that many have already taken on a number of adult responsibilities at home with their parents working to keep a roof over their heads.
Still, life has a way of surprising people and for as much striking imagery as there is in “Scenes from a Glittering World,” Jakins may gently observes the changes that Noah, Granite and Illi experience in their formative years, but will go one step further in letting the film occasionally surrender to what unexpected directions it starts taking, with the careful compositions he likely had in mind disrupted by animals wandering into frame during sit-down interviews and his subjects not only work around what’s thrown their way there with grace but all gradually open up in a place where the pain that has been held in over generations has clearly been a burden. With the film premiering today virtually as part of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival out of Durham, North Carolina, Jakins and Neang recently spoke about how they made it together and embracing chaos with the exciting places it could lead.
How did this come about?
Jared Jakins: it’s interesting because what spurred my producer and I to make the trip out to Navajo Mountain, which for us is about seven hours away, at first was an article in a local paper about this extremely remote high school having a robotics team. We started to get to know the community and the school a little bit and we began tracking the school’s robotics team’s season, but with time, we shifted focus because the subjects that we found and fell in love with — Illi being one of them — weren’t really interested in the robotics in the way that we hoped. It was just not really the film they wanted to make it seemed, and Illi is a great example because Illi wasn’t on the robotics team even, but we just felt Illi is such a great person, we just wanted to make room for her as well.
Illi Neang: Because we were told it was about the robotics team, I didn’t think I’d be like in the movie all that much.
Illi, is it true you had just moved to the area and there were suddenly all these cameras?
Illi Neang: I live with my grandparents a lot, so I move back and forth at times, and I’ve lived here before with my grandma, but it was weird coming back for freshman year of high school, which I thought I didn’t pass, so that was already stressful thinking that and then the movie, it was like, “Aw, shoot, okay then.”
After you give up the robotics angle, are there directions this takes that you could start to get excited about?
Jared Jakins: Yeah, from the beginning, as an outsider to the community, especially as a white male director, I knew I’d need to as much as possible draw from the subjects themselves and not just try and learn from them what the story is we should tell, but also how we should tell it. One thing that struck me as we spent more and more time with them is how everyone had these really powerful familial connections. For instance, Illi’s brother is a really fun presence with her in the film, so as I discovered some of those things, I just really wanted to try and capture them as authentically as possible. A lot of that came from working with each subject to come up with what scenes and situations or topics that they’d want to talk about.
For instance, Illi, I think, was really articulate in the film, talking about representation and how a lot of indigenous peoples are pretty underrepresented and in some cases, not represented. While we’re capturing that, I just love that her brother is just being free and having fun walking around the frame, just being there, so there were unexpected things like that where maybe common practice would be to try to control the situation more or eliminate distractions, and maybe have the subjects sit down. But it was unexpected that way that those things just started coming more naturally to just let things be a little more wild.
That opening interview is crazy once the animals enter the mix.
Illi Neang: I remember I was trying to talk as best as I could and then I kept on getting a bunch of distractions, which sucks because I get easily distracted, so having the dogs was both a way for me to not feel as stressed because it was not as formal, but it also sucked a lot because my brother, my cousins were all walking around with a traffic cone and the dogs were all biting my hands, and I’m like, “leave me alone! I’m trying to do this.” [laughs] I kept starting a bunch of times, so we had to do retakes on that and then the dogs were all coming in and I’m like, “Ehhhh, shoot, okay, let me try and get this right.”
Jared Jakins: Correct me if I’m wrong Illi, but I think that was the first thing we shot with you.
Illi Neang: Yeah, you could tell too because throughout the movie I’m awkward as all heck, but that was the worst. [laughs] That was like ewww…
Jared Jakins: You did great. But what was interesting was in shooting that scene, that’s where something clicked for me that there’s a sort of familial chaos that was endearing and charming. And I remember sending it off to my editor and he was like, “What do you want me to do? This is chaotic.” [laughs] And I just said, “Roll with it. Embrace it.” And he said, “Did you shoot any coverage for B-roll?” And I said, “No, I just wanted to jump. Let’s truly lean into the wild nature of the energy there with Illi and her brother and her other siblings.”
Was it easy to let go of control like that? Between this and your previous film “El Desierto,” there’s definitely a formal style you bring to the films.
Jared Jakins: I shoot my films as well, so I think photographically there’s some similarities and things that feel natural to do and it’s hard to get away from those things. Our proof of concept that we used to fundraise was very much about robotics, and it was far more formal and we had sit-down interviews that we lit and all sorts of fancy camera moves and that worked to get our funding, then once I started actual production of the film, I felt a little guilty because perhaps we’d done a bait and switch with our financier. [laughs] But it just felt more natural to strip everything down to one camera and just have these scenes unfold. I’m being very formal in the way I’m framing them, but I don’t want to manipulate the scene too much. I didn’t want to light it or overly direct how subjects were sitting or standing or speaking.
Illi, when you know there’s going to be a film, was there anything that’s important for you that comes across?
Illi Neang: I made sure I didn’t reveal anything because I knew it would be questioned. [laughs] But Jared wouldn’t force me to elaborate or anything like that, so I wouldn’t say anything too emotional or personal because eww…
It seems like a really elegant way to share some of what you were feeling was with that beautiful art project you create. Was that easy to show off?
Illi Neang: No, not really. [laughs] Because I don’t like emotional stuff, turning in the drawing to the contest was already sucky as it was, and then Jared was like, “Do you mind showing it off?” But I didn’t mind because again, I thought it wouldn’t make it into the film, and then when I actually saw it, I was like, “Aw shoot, he actually put it in there.” [laughs]
It struck me as a potential doubled-edged sword in filming at a school of 30 – did that make it easier to track or more difficult when it seems like you maybe should be paying attention to everyone?
Jared Jakins: Yeah, 30 students is unusual for a school, so in a way we were able to spend time with 10 percent of the entire student body. But in the beginning, our focus being on robotics, we thought we’d really choose people on the team and Granite and Noah are both on the robotics team, so their selection was pretty natural. Then Illi was really interesting because she just kept catching our eye during classes when we’d be filming, she was just extremely insightful. At one point, I remember talking about in class how I’m from South Africa and Illi rose her hand and spouted off a bunch of facts about South Africa, which I thought was really interesting that she knew so much about it. That was the first time we had a conversation was after that class and we just realized she was really interesting and funny.
Was it difficult to balance how much you wanted to include about the school itself? There’s allusions to the fact that it might be having sustainability issues.
Jared Jakins: Yeah, there were versions of the movie where the school was a much bigger piece of the picture, but as time went on, we decided to include just enough to provide a little bit of context and the ways the school might be influencing the home life of the students. It was pretty special to have the kind of access that we had, so some of the things that came out of that, we felt were too good to lose. We could film any classroom, we were allowed to film parent/teacher conferences/faculty meetings, and that allowed us to get some of the really nice moments in the film, like exchanges between teachers and parents or grandparents. It is really interesting that the school itself has its challenges and some of those come out of the fact there are so few students, but there are other challenges perhaps too where some of the educators aren’t connecting well enough with their students. One of our producers Roni Jo Draper is an educator and that aspect of the movie really interested her from the beginning, so she definitely influenced how we framed the school and the ways in which we kept it in the film.
What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?
Jared Jakins: It’s been about three years to this point and sharing the film with Illi and Granite and Noah and their families, that’s really been the highlight so far, seeing their reactions, and it’s one of those things where it’s hard to articulate, but it feels really satisfying and makes the hard times worth it.
Illi Neang: Yeah, it’s pretty exciting, but then nerve-racking because I get to watch it and I get reminded of all the stuff that happened and it’s like, “Oh shoot, a bunch of people are going to see it now.” [laughs]