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Lights! Camera! K’ad! Navajo Film Festival aims to preserve language in media

Festival makes its second appearance at San Juan College
The interior of the Connie Gotsch Theatre at San Juan College. The Navajo Film Festival took place here with short films on June 15 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (Courtesy of San Juan College)

Moviegoers can expect to see a lineup of Navajo language short films at the San Juan College Connie Gotsch Theatre.

The Navajo Film Festival, which has the slogan “A Celebration of Our Language in Film,” is set to provide Farmington residents a showcase of filmmakers in the area while also highlighting the Navajo language. The festival will showcase its short films on June 15.

The Navajo Film Festival started in 2018 showing films at Navajo Preparatory School, then moved to Shiprock High School in their second year, board member Michael Lewis said.

The crowd at the Navajo Film Festival listen to an introduction from Chizz Bah, a local Native comedian, before the screenings of the short films on June 15 at Connie Gotsch Theatre. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)

The festival began after NFF director Tacey Gonzales and Lewis met through a family member whom Lewis was staying with in Los Angeles, Lewis said.

A workshop for student filmmakers was planned, but it was canceled and would remain online for the next two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gonzales and Lewis both agreed on starting a film festival to encourage filmmakers and those in media to use the language more.

“The goal is not film, per se. It's the language,” he said.

As a board member, Lewis said he looks at the festival as a linguistic enthusiast rather than as a film enthusiast.

“I think that it's important to keep language, linguistic diversity alive,” he said “Navajo is, in some sense, the best position of the native languages in the United States, but it is also at risk.”

Throughout media, Native Americans are becoming more involved in front of and behind the camera, but the language preservation is not where it needs to be, he said

“They are bringing in native consultants and Native writers and native actors to do it,” he said “So wouldn't it be great if some of that Hollywood money was going into Navajo content like we are going to create Navajo stories, Navajo films, with the Navajo language featured prominently.”

Filmmakers like Sydney Freeland, who’s from Gallup, are examples of Native Americans breaking into Hollywood and having an impact on storytelling, Lewis said.

Attendees leave their email and received a free shirt at the Navajo Film Festival on June 15 at Connie Gotsch Theatre. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)

Lewis also hopes to reach the audiences that are learning or fluent in the language.

That demographic may have an interest in film, just as elders were able to enjoy the films dubbed in Navajo like “Finding Nemo” and “Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope,” he said.

“Those aren't Navajo characters, they're not Navajo stories, but dubbing it into Navajo has turned it into a Navajo story,” he said.

Over the years, the Navajo Film Festival has seen submissions from New Mexico and Utah. The films have ranged from silent to animated features.

Lewis said a film he remembers was by a filmmaker named Kymon, who utilized unconventional editing techniques while delivering an interesting story.

Films were required to use only the Navajo language in their film and must not exceed four minutes. The films were also appropriate for audiences as young as 14.

“We are not a huge production,” Lewis said. “Right now there are four films that have been submitted.”

A music presentation from the Chinle Swinging Echoes followed the screenings of the films at the Navajo Film Festival at Connie Gotsch Theatre on June 15. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)
Attendees of the Navajo Film Festival join together outside of the Connie Gotsch Theatre on June 15 for refreshments. (Alx Lee/Tri-City Record)

A music presentation from the Chinle Swinging Echoes followed the screenings of the films.

“The Trails Before Us”, a short documentary from Fritz Bitsoie was also screened that highlighted the mountain biking community on the reservation.

The judges included those in the entertainment industry and Navajo community members. Those judges will work critique the films on their production value, the level of story intrigue and the use of the Navajo language.

There were three categories: adult, youth and audience choice award. The adult and youth award winners won prize money in first, second and third tiers.

2024 Navajo Film Festival Winners

Youth Category

First - “I’m Drinking Book” by Wes Beco

Second - “Native Land” by Lilly Hendershot

Third - “Running East” by Coen Hendershot

Adult Category

First - “T’áá Dinék’ehjígo” by Terry L Teller

Second - “Silly Billy Diné: Birds”

Third - “Loss (A’den)” by Ethan Charles Tom

Audience Choice Award - “Silly Billy Diné: Birds”

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