The Assay Interview Project: Ramona Emerson
January 1, 2019
Ramona Emerson is a Diné (Navajo) documentary filmmaker originally from Tohatchi, New Mexico, and now based in Albuquerque where she operates the production company Reel Indian Pictures, along with her husband, producer Kelly Byars. Her films—portraits of her contemporary Diné community—tell stories of Indigenous artists, elders and youth activists that defy the stereotypes circulated in mainstream media’s representations. Her most recent documentary, The Mayors of Shiprock, follows members of the Northern Diné Youth Committee as they work to revitalize their home community of Shiprock, New Mexico, and her other films include Between Worlds, Hidden Talents, Opal, A Return Home, and The Last Trek. Emerson has been a Sundance Native Lab Fellow, a Time-Warner Storyteller Fellow, a Tribeca All-Access Grantee, and a WGBH Producer Fellow; she also has an MFA from the Institute for American Indian Arts and just finished her first novel, Shutter.
Joanna Hearne: How did you become a filmmaker? Did you start when you were a kid?
Ramona Emerson: I just went to the movies all the time. There was nothing else to do when I was growing up. We had a little trailer that was down by the arroyo and it had the movies on VHS. They had about three or four hundred movies in there.
It was your library--
Right! That’s where I got to watch Faces of Death and all that really bad stuff that your Grandma says “Don’t watch!” So we saw all the gross movies, and we sat there and watched all summer. There was not much else to do, you know? You could only run around and ride your bike outside for so long, and then you want to come in and watch movies. That’s all we did.
My Grandma made a big special thing out of going to the movies. We didn’t have a lot of money, so when we did get a chance, it was always like “Oh my God! Grandma’s taking us to the movies!” Or we’d have to go and collect cans, or we’d have to go do something to get money, and then we would go to the movies. I don’t think I realized that I wanted to do that until I was a junior in high school. I’d always been a fan of Spike Lee. His new movie was coming out, Mo’ Better Blues—I went to that movie with my mom. She checked me out of school early and took me to see it. There was something about it—I don’t know—there was this scene where his girlfriend comes over and interrupts him, while he’s practicing. They have the dolly and the camera mounted on this thing, and so he’s in there working through his song in his mind while he’s spinning around the room, and then his girlfriend calls and he stops. She comes in, and he’s like “I’m trying to practice! Would you just leave me alone?” you know, “Just give me a break.” And she starts kissing on him and it starts to spin again. And I thought, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
I mean I’d seen Orson Welles and I’d seen all this other stuff, but it was something about that idea of harnessing emotion and love and passion in a shot without having to say a word, or to explain it, and I just thought “Man! That’s what I want to do.” I always liked to do camera stuff. I just decided that at that moment “Mom, this is what I’m going to do. I know it.” And she went and got me a bunch of books I wanted – a certain book about filmmaking. I wanted these diaries because Spike Lee used to keep diaries during all of his productions. She got me She’s Gotta Have It and these different books so I could read about his process—all the crap he had to go through to get these films made. And then I just started—I started right then in high school. I think my first documentary was about a priest. I was at Catholic School. Father Belish was there and he was leaving. I said ‘Father Belish! Can we make a goodbye video for you?” So I interviewed students and I edited it together, and I thought—I can do this stuff. When I went to school at University of New Mexico it was really more theoretical as opposed to production.
I was tortured because I was like: “Well when are we going to get to make freaking movies?” I did a few films while I was at film school. When I got out [forensics photography] was the only job I could find. Back then, New Mexico didn’t have a film industry yet, and there were no jobs. Then, when you try to get into the union, they always say “You’ve got to get a job on the set first.” I’m like “How am I supposed to get a job on the set if you won’t let me in?” I was like, “All right, I guess I’m going to be doing this forensics stuff.” I just had no idea I was going to be stuck there for sixteen years, but it kept me afloat while we were able to do these things.
You worked in forensics for sixteen years?
Yeah, when I first got out of film school that was the only job I could find. And now I work for a private forensic company in Albuquerque and we basically do anything and everything for the legal community, from videotaping stuff for the state bar, certification videos, to going out to crash scenes. It’s a lot of inspection work. You go out with lawyers and experts, and you’re underneath vehicles that got crushed and you’re looking at serial numbers and you’re measuring cuts in the tire and going out into the middle of the road and measuring tire tracks and taking pictures of it. I would do films, and then I would work for this guy.
Is that when you made Opal, during that time?
Well I made a lot of films during the time I worked for the guy, and it was good to work for him because I came and went as I pleased. When I had a baby, he came to work with me. Nobody cared. I was down there working all by myself. But it allowed me to get technical knowledge. I learned really early on that you’ve got to get it right the first time. I mean, for me there’s no color correction. There’s none of that, because I was trained for sixteen years that if you screw it up the first time you’re going to ruin the chain of evidence. You’re going to screw up this case for somebody, and it’s a big life or death situation if you screw up something.
The stakes are high.
Right. So you have to get the color right. You can’t be too dark. The sound has to be perfect. We do depositions—there’s witnesses there. You’ve got to get it right. And if it’s not working—if something’s not working—frankly, you’ve got to tell everybody “We’ve got to stop. I’ve got to fix something”—whatever’s wrong. It’s this technical process, and then a huge part of my job was doing “day in the life” documentaries. So, somebody is injured by the police or a doctor or a car accident or whatever it is—my job was to go in and spend one or two days with them and their family and just kind of be a fly on the wall in their home. You know, see how they eat, how their wife has to help them brush their teeth now, how they can’t make it to the bathroom by themselves or their mom has to change their diaper now—so you can see how their life has changed since whatever the incident was. Then my films would go to the jury, and usually they would settle. When they brought me in, it was because they were trying to get a settlement. It made me much more aware of recording—how important it is to record the moment and record it right, first time, no problems.
The training in precision came from forensic photography.
When I saw this IAIA [Institute of American Indian Arts] MFA program open up, it was like, this is my chance to do something else, because I was just kind of depressed about the whole idea of making film. I was in the middle of making Mayors of Shiprock and I wasn’t getting funding. [Vision Maker media] allowed me to take five years to make this film because I was going to graduate school and I was writing this novel at the same time I’m making Shiprock.
The film is so positive, and you’ve just got to keep this positive energy up, but at the same time writing this really dark horrible novel about death—but I finished the book, and then then I finished the film after that.
Congratulations! What’s it called?
It’s called Shutter. It’s about a Navajo woman who works in forensics. I don’t know how much you know about how terrified of death Navajos are, but it’s like the biggest taboo out there to talk about. You don’t even mention death. So she works as this forensics person, who looks at dead people all the time. I wanted to write a story with a woman in charge, a woman who’s strong, who knows what she’s doing, but who also has this weakness that she sees and talks to ghosts. When she starts working forensics, the dead people start realizing that she can see them, she can talk to them. They start to take advantage of it and they start to haunt her and effect the trajectory of her life, making her do stuff for them. You know it’s hard if you’re a forensic photographer, and the dead person comes and tells you what happened. What are you going to do? Go tell the cops? “Hey! I know exactly who killed this guy.” “Well, how do you know?” “They came and told me!” That’s not going to work. How is she able to create justice for these ghosts while also keeping her job? And not letting people in on the secret that she does this.
How did you get Mayors of Shiprock financed?
It was all Vision Maker—they paid for preproduction and production, they’ll do two stages but they won’t do all three so you have to find funding for the other third—nobody would fund us. No one! I applied—I literally got denied from ITVS Post Production funding eight times. Eight times!
And Vision Maker’s like “Let’s go!” So I just asked them flat out—I need help. I need somebody that has nothing to do with this project to come in and talk to me and we’ll work through this last edit. It was an hour and thirty minutes—it still was way over. So I called Fernanda Rossi. She’s the documentary doctor. I had gone to one of her workshops years before. I knew what kind of work she does and she does exactly what I’m asking somebody to do—if you’re stuck, or you need another writer, a third head to come in and help you, she was that third head. I think I showed her the film in January of this year and she watched it one time and then she called me and she was like: “Ramona. Tell me what your film is about. I want to hear it out of your mouth,” and I told her: “It’s about these great groups of kids at Shiprock. It’s their story, and we really want to make sure that people see what work they’re doing.” And she goes, “Great. Now let me go watch it and I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” So she called me back the next day and she goes, “Okay, Ramona, you ready?” She goes, “I want you to cut all the white people out of your film.” I was like, “What do you mean?” There was the principal of the high school in there, teachers, a couple of girls. And there was this great scene—and she was like, “No. All of that. The white: out.”
And I was like, “Wow! Okay, okay.” And she goes, “Just do it, and then call me tomorrow.” So, I did. I went in there and I just took it all out, cut it almost down to an hour. And my husband and I sat and re-watched it, and he was like, “Oh my god! She fixed it.” I talked to her the next day and she goes, “Well, how do you feel?” and I was like, “Well, at first I was really kind of like…Oh my God…and then now after I watch it I realize that you were right.” And she goes, “Because you told me. You told me that this story was about them, and you wanted to make sure that you were maintaining their story. Every time you brought one of these outsiders into the story, all it did was validate what they were saying. Why did you need some white people to come in there and validate what they’ve already said? You don’t. The reason you’re doing that is because you’ve been ITVS-ing and PBS-ing too long. They tell you—what’s this? What’s this? What’s this? And you work for them, because that’s what they like. They like having these Native films, but there’s always some white guy that comes on to explain the history behind it or the—”
The expert, right? The expert comes in and explains about how all the Indians are. Why do you need that?! Why do Native filmmakers ever need that shit? She’s like “You don’t! Take it out!” Then we went back and fudged around with the edit—moved things around and did some other things but it was pretty much just as it was. And we sent it to Vision Maker and they were like “It’s like a completely different film!” Then we got it to Brent Michael Davids and he scored it, and I got a couple of grants in New Mexico from the New Mexico Film Foundation. I think they gave me $5,000, because that was a huge amount of money holding me back—I couldn’t pay Brent for the music and I couldn’t finish the film without it! I think by June the film was done. From that time that we started working with Fernanda, all the way to having it done and scored and starting to get uploaded through PBS, it was six months. And I had been fighting with that thing for two years—trying to get funding, trying to get money to pay an editor. But I just ended up teaching myself how to do it. Cutting it myself--
And consulting with her, via Skype.
I’m thinking about these generations of filmmakers in Indigenous media production, like Alanis Obomsawin, Sandy Osawa, people who, in the sixties and seventies, made the first Native television show, first documentary, and then there’s been generations of consulting and mentoring through this process. There’s also infrastructure, like Vision Maker. These sorts of structures didn’t used to be there. New Mexico didn’t have a film industry, then it did. You have seen the generations and infrastructure change.
When I was coming up I didn’t really have anybody to help me at all. There were certain filmmakers I looked up to, like Sandy Osawa, like Victor Masayesva, right? There were these up and coming Native filmmakers then. But, even then, they were in their forties, they were as old as I was, and they’re still trying to make it. I would see their films and I would go “Man! These are so great,” but I just was like, “they’re so ethnographic though.” When are we going to make a real documentary, you know? When is that going to happen?
I just never had that force to guide me, so had to just start making films about what I thought was important and find my own style, my own way to do things. Of course that whole forensic thing gave me the technical knowledge.
...and trying to make films as a woman in an industry that’s really hostile to that.
What I always remember is that there was nobody there, so when I meet somebody who’s interested in doing what I’m going to do, or what I’ve done, I always want them to come with me. When we were working on the Mayors of Shiprock, almost all of my PAs that came with—because my husband [Kelly Byars] couldn’t come all of the time—I would take somebody with me to help me set up lights, run the mics and do stuff. Almost every single time it was a girl. I would find young women who wanted to be in film or had just graduated from film school and needed a PBS credit so they could get in the stupid union. I was always looking for “Oh you just get out? You want to come with me to Shiprock?” I mean wish that I had somebody that had said “Hey, Ramona! I’m making this great documentary. Would you come with me and you can help me shoot it and I’ll show you some stuff?” I would’ve been like “I’m down! Let’s go!” But there was never anybody like that for me. So I always, always am looking for somebody. I try to have it be girls because I know that there’s such a lack in the industry and I’m trying to influence them to stay in this film industry. A lot of them won’t. They’ll get discouraged and they’ll get tired of trying. I get discouraged and want to quit every day. Every day! And so my job is to make sure that there’s some hope, some light at the end of the tunnel for them. And their like “Ok, well, Ramona does it. She may not be a multi-millionaire but she’s making the stories that she wants. And nobody can really tell her how to make them or what to do because she’s just doing it.”
That’s the kind of thing I want them to experience, so that they don’t need to depend on some guy or some producer or some bullshit to get their careers going. If you really want to do it and you’re that passionate—you know how to run the camera, you know how to run the sound, you have a phone—there’s no reason why you can’t make a story. And when you make your story and you’re ready to put it together and you need somebody to look at it, call me.
Making a network. In 2009 I realized what the economic downturn meant for freelancers--it’s been on my mind since then. How is this sustainable? How can this work?
It doesn’t. It’s horrible. I’ll go through months of just being like “Yeah! Nothing but work coming in,” you know, rolling, rolling, rolling. Either that or you have nothing! It’s like feast or famine. It’s hard to want to keep making movies when you know this is probably what’s going to happen every single time. These movies don’t make money.
You’re at the end of a big project.
I’m thinking about starting another one. My husband was like, “So every time you say you’re going to stop and then just comes another one.” Something always comes up.
What’s the next one?
It’s tentatively called Crossing the Line, and it’s about border town violence, particularly the Loreal Tsingine case in Flagstaff. She was the young Navajo woman who was shot by the police, earlier this year. We got access to all the case files and the DOT reports and the actual body cam, and I realized after getting involved with that case that I needed to make the film about that. We are going to explore border town violence as a whole, but through the lens of her case, because she’s in Winslow which is a huge, bad border town. But we’re going to study Albuquerque, Gallup and Farmington, for different reasons. Farmington has done better. They used to be called the Selma of the Southwest, you know? And they had to really get their shit together. The Feds came in and everything. I’ve asked Navajo people, “Do you feel that there’s a difference there?” and they’re like, “Yeah! It’s not as racist as it used to be..” There aren’t people disappearing every night, people getting dumped on in the canyons and rolled by young high school students, you know? That stuff is starting to end now. Then you go to Gallup and they’re doing the exact opposite. They’re implementing all these anti-panhandling laws and anti-homeless laws, but they’re closing the homeless shelters and then they wonder why, “Oh! Why are these Navajos dying?” Because you just kicked them all out of the homeless shelter! And they’re freezing to death outside, and you don’t care. And then Albuquerque just doesn’t do anything. Just last year those two Navajo guys were killed by these young kids.
I remember that.
And what do they do? They have these little symbolic talks with the Native community but they never do anything about it, and the cops are like, “Yeah, we had a meeting.” And they’re still as racist as ever. Nothing changes.
So we’re looking at it through the lens of these three cities and how you can change it, how you can make it worse, and how you can do absolutely nothing. This paradigm of violence against Native women, and police violence against people of color, and all of these things play into this case. It’s important that we tell this story because we have all this stuff going on nationally, like Black Lives Matter—what about all the Native people that we never hear about? This happens on the daily.
I met her family and there was just something about it—I finally I realized that I’m being called to do this. I’ve done forensics. I know how to work this kind of case.
I thought about your background when you were starting to talk about it.
For me, as a forensics person, it’s easy to look at this case as evidence and not be emotional about it. I’m working for her. This is me exposing the racism of the Arizona police department and the stand-your-ground laws—this is a time to question that kind of institutional racism. I mean that guy totally got off, you know? There were so many things that he did wrong that they don’t talk about. There’s so many things that he didn’t think about that they don’t talk about. It’s because there’s no Native voice there, so that’s why we have to tell this story. And this is a tough story to tell. There’s going to be backlash. I don’t know if the cops are going to harass me. It could very well turn out that way.
So it’s kind of a painful piece to work on. I may not make another one after that. I don’t know! There’s so many young filmmakers coming up. They’re going to carry all of this on, all these young documentary filmmakers. They’re so flashy and they all are so technically adept— their films are beautiful and they have great technology to use.
You had beautiful shots in the Mayors of Shiprock.
Beautiful shots, especially the opening—you arranged for a rainbow.
We were very blessed that day. We weren’t expecting it. It looked like it was going to rain the whole time. And we went out there—it was raining. I asked my husband/producer, “What are we going to do?” He was like, ‘Well, just put a blanket over it and we’ll just shoot it.” And we did. And then that rainbow came out.
Joanna Hearne is associate professor in the English Department at the University of Missouri, where she teaches film studies and was the founding director of the Digital Storytelling Program. She has published a number of articles on Indigenous film and digital media, animation, early cinema, westerns, and documentary, and she edited the 2017 special issue of Studies in American Indian Literatures on “Digital Indigenous Studies: Gender, Genre and New Media." Her two books are Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western (SUNY Press, 2012) and Smoke Signals: Native Cinema Rising (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).
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