Sterlin Harjo on the Art That Breaks Through in “Love and Fury”

"Love and Fury"
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It was late at night in downtown Albuquerque when Sterlin Harjo found himself in an alley with the painter Haley Greenfeather and the graffiti artist Bobby “Dues” Wilson, where the two were illustrating a myth that had been passed down for generations in Wilson’s tribe about the Iktómi, a trickster spirit, on the side of a wall. The painting, far more elegant than your typical street art, was coming together nicely, but Harjo had no idea whether that would mean much to the cop car he saw rolling up on them.

“It was scary at first because I haven’t spent much time in downtown Albuquerque and it just felt like we were so exposed,” said Harjo, who was halfway down the street before he could see Wilson and what turned out to be an off-duty security officer having a friendly chat. “I literally took off around the block with my equipment because I didn’t want it to get confiscated. Then after a while, nothing was happening, so we turned the corner and came back around and the guy was just like, “Alright, man, have a good one.” Street art is really embraced in Albuquerque and it wasn’t a big deal.”

Thanks to Harjo having the presence of mind to keep the cameras rolling, the scene is among the most memorable in “Love and Fury,” which has plenty of them as the filmmaker criss-crosses the U.S. and even makes a few stops abroad to showcase Native artists in a variety of disciplines who honor the legacy of those who have come before them and are fearlessly forging their own path ahead. Whether it’s Julia Keefe, a jazz singer in New York who grew up listening to Billie Holliday on the Nez Pierce reservation, Cheyenne and Arapaho author Tommy Orange, whose book tour for “There There” takes him through Oklahoma, or Chickasaw Americana singer/songwriter Micah P. Henson, whose travels take him from Denison, Texas to Brussels, the film becomes as unencumbered by form as those in front of the camera, allowing for a film that airs concerns about the expectations that others may have for them while actively demonstrating both collectively and individually how they have turned obstacles for expression into creative fuel for distinctive work and a refusal to compromise.

When many have no exact template for what they’re doing, even when as in Greenfeather’s case, they are the children of artists, “Love and Fury” captures the excitement of creation with the artists making discoveries as audiences are likely discovering them and coming in the wake of his own mainstream success with the widely acclaimed FX series “Reservation Dogs,” Harjo generously opens up the stage for so many others to shine, a platform that became even bigger after the film was acquired for distribution by ARRAY and made available far and wide on Netflix this past week. Recently, Harjo shared how this celebration of Native artists came together, embracing a punk rock attitude towards the film’s structure and being able to show the life of an artist in full.

How did this come about?

I just felt like within the world of Native art, I wanted to do this poetic look at the diversity of different types of artists that we have and how people are breaking out of the box I think of what is stereotypically native art. We have so many interesting artists and things going on at the moment, I really just wanted to be a fly on the wall and document it. I’m a big fan of Les Blank’s documentaries. In particular, there’s a film called “A Poem is a Naked Person” that was about Leon Russell and more than it’s about Leon Russell, it’s about a time and place. There’s less manipulation from the filmmaker. It’s more about capturing moments and that’s what I wanted to do with this film.

That may have been what inspired this, but there’s a lack of context that may be taken from the Les Blank style but also becomes really poignant here when there isn’t a suggestion that Native art has to be relative to any other culture. Was that foundational?

Yeah, it was super intentional. I didn’t want to make the documentary where I was overexplaining everything about Native culture and art. I just wanted audiences to feel like they were getting a glimpse behind the curtain and that would be more intriguing at the end. I don’t name the artists particularly as we’re going because for me I didn’t want it to be about individual artists as much as it is about a movement and about a community and I found the more artists that I met those same conversations kept coming up. I think the film is ultimately an expression of my feelings because I respect and love these artists so much and have a tendency to agree with a lot of their conversations and I’m a part of those conversations, so what better way to express something than with these amazing artists. They have the poetry and the visual art and the context to really express how I’m feeling. It was almost like making a music video in that I’m taking someone else’s work and I’m putting images to it to ultimately express what I have to say. I really wanted the story to be told in this communal way where it’s one story, but it’s told through vignettes of all these different individual artists.

There’s such a vibrant scene in Tulsa, it looks like you could’ve just stayed there. How did it grow geographically?

It started with Micah P. Hinson, Canuppa Luger, my friend Penny Pitchlynn, who’s in the band LABRYS, and also Haley Greenfeather, and I picked those artists because I had become fans of theirs and some of them you wouldn’t necessarily know on the surface that they’re Native artists. Then as I started making it, Penny’s tour didn’t come to fruition and I filmed with Emily Johnson more and I just ended up letting the film organically take me places. Both Micah and Canuppa happened to be in Europe for both a tour and also a project, so I was like let’s take them out of their home turf and see them in other places, and at that point, I was like, “Well, why stop there?” I really wanted to show the breadth of Indian Country and show that we are all from all these different communities, but we also have similarities and similar experiences.

When one artist is leading to another, were there exciting discoveries you were making along the way with this?

For sure. I wasn’t as familiar with the poet Demian Dine’yazhi’ and I got to know his work through it, and meeting Haley Greenfeather’s dad [Sam English], who makes a brief appearance in the film, I definitely learned a lot [from] and met some really good people and also caught up with a lot of old friends like Laura Ortman. The band Black Belt Eagle Scout, they stay at my house when they come through town and they happened to be coming through when we were shooting this film, so I was like, “Well, why not shoot a performance?” Then I was introduced through them to Weed Rat, the punk band, which was really exciting. They were playing a show [together] in Oklahoma City, so I found a way to go film up there, and it was a really organic process.

The sequence in Alaska with Nicholas Galanin, who goes by the stage name Silver Jackson, is really special since in such a concise amount of time you’re able to show the entire spectrum of his experience as a working artist. What was it like to cut together?

It’s interesting because it looks way more planned than it was. I had already filmed with Nick at a show he was doing in Palm Springs, and he happened to be in New York at the same time I was filming with Canuppa and Demian and all these other artists, so I broke off with him to film him installing a piece. Then I had this gig in Alaska with my comedy group and I don’t know how far things are from where, but I told Nick where I was going to be and he said, “Look, you should just get a flight and come up here. We can go fishing.” So I literally just changed my travel plans and I just stayed there a couple days. There was no crew, no sound equipment and it was just me with a camera and fortunately Nick had one because I wasn’t traveling with one and it just really came about in a very organic way. And when I was editing it, it was one of my favorite sequences to play with because some of the artists we don’t get to see at home, but we get to see him out and touring and installing a show and then also at home being himself in his environment, so that section turned out really great.

Structurally, was it exciting to juxtapose some of these artists when their disciplines are so different? The cut from the industrial noise band Tick Suck to the calm of a fine art project in Plymouth, England cut is particularly great.

It was a lot of fun and part of that was about disruption. There was something kind of punk rock collage-y that I wanted to do with the film and not overexplain anything and just drop you in it. Also within the cuts themselves, juxtaposing something like Tick Suck with Plymouth or with Haley Greenfeather’s dad talking about “Just go out and express the way you want to express. Don’t care about what anybody thinks” and then it cuts into Tick Suck, the disruption of that in and of itself expresses the meaning of the title, which is “Love and Fury.” It’s like we have all of these different energy levels [where] silence and chaos and humor and sadness are butting up against each other and I wanted to express that with the cutting as well.

Not only was seeing all of these various artists exciting, but the spaces they have to create their art in and sometimes have to make for themselves. Was that something you wanted to showcase?

It’s just the nature of these artists. A lot of these artists are underground artists — they’re not being supported by giant corporations. It’s DIY and they’re making these spaces themselves or they’re taking them over, growing community out of these spaces, so it was just the nature of filming with these artists because that is how they survive and really nurture these communities – they create their own. Each of these artists have some version of that that they do their work in, even Haley. We don’t talk about it [in the film], but the space that her studio is in is an old school that artists took over and they have their own individual studios, so that’s where these artists are at right now in their career and it speaks to the Indigenous side of these artists, which I think pushes more towards community and community-driven art.

You’ve created a space in a different way with this film. Has there been a chance to gather people to see it yet?

There hasn’t. There were some people who got together for a screening in Spokane, but right before it came out, the pandemic hit and I was about to go in person to Hot Docs, but it became a virtual, so it really didn’t feel like it got its proper premiere. Then it just sort of laid there while I made “Reservation Dogs” over the last couple years and I wrote ARRAY, not really knowing what to do with the film, asking them if I could submit for consideration for distribution. They were positively yes, so I sent it in and they came back and were like, “We want to put this out” and it was that fast and that quick. It’s been a whirlwind since then.

It seems like such a great capper for the year you’ve had with “Reservation Dogs” as well.

It’s been crazy. I’m an independent filmmaker and I’m used to making low budget films. They play at festivals. They get some sort of limited distribution and a small number of people see it, but now I’m in a position where everyone’s seeing my show and this film is actually being put out with actual marketing behind it. So it’s been crazy and beautiful and a bit overwhelming at times, but you just hold on and go for it. Obviously, [I have] nothing but gratitude because I get to keep telling stories, but you’ve got to keep moving. I’m working on season two [of “Reservation Dogs”] right now, so there’s no time to really stop and think about it too much.

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