• Maps Director

Documentary on culture of Fort Belknap tribes hitting major film festivals


A number of Harlem High School students have come together in an extracurricular group, Milk River Productions, for the past couple of years making student films, most recently releasing the film "Looking Forward From Yesterday."

A documentary made by a group of Harlem High School students is on its way to two film festivals. "Looking Forward From Yesterday" will be featured in this year's Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula and the Future Forward Film Festival in Portland, Oregon.

"It's just a film that tell how we are preserving our culture as Aaniiih Nakoda people," Harlem High School junior Alexis Bigby said, who directed the documentary. "It talks about the troubles that plague our communities and how culture is a way for healing and how we, as Aaniiih Nakoda people, have to be more open to learning and be able stick with it so our culture doesn't die out."

"Looking Forward From Yesterday," and two other student films were shown Wednesday as part of the Mid-Winter Fair at the Fort Belknap Bingo Hall.

The film was produced by the extracurricular group Milk River Productions, which is made up of a number of students at Harlem High School and has a number of school advisors who help them learn and produce films which the students create. The group also receives assistance from MAPS Media Institute, which helps the group submit films to competitions and different festivals across the country.

"This is the third film project we've done with the students of Harlem High School," MAPS Media Lab Director Dru Carr said in a press release. "These young artists have both skill and heart. They committed themselves to work hard during these few days of filming and editing, and it shows in the depth and creativity in the final production.

"It's such an honest and intimate portrayal of a challenging subject, and it was powered by the students commitment and courage," he added. "It's been an honor to watch the growth in this group's journey over the past several years."

MAPS was also involved with another school film, filmed and produced by students at Poplar Middle School, which will also be screened in the Big Sky Film Festival, the press release said.

"It is an extraordinary honor to have MAPS productions screen again the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival," MAPS Executive Director Clare Ann Harff said in the release. "It's such a unique and uplifting event, not only for the community of western Montana filmgoers who flock to Missoula in the middle of February, but also for the documentary film industry itself. And to have two of our student films play alongside some of the best non-fiction films in the world, well, let's just say that we're as proud as we can be and the celebration will be grand."

Craig Todd, Harlem High School student advisor for Milk River Production said Wednesday that he is incredibly proud of his students and the work they have done. He added that he has seen extraordinary growth from each one of the students involved and has seen many of the students gain confidence within themselves.

In every day classrooms students get projects to work on but it is not usually something they have passion for, they just do it for the grade, he said. But when the students are working on these films they are passion projects.

"They are doing it for their family, their community, for their futures," Todd said.

One of the most incredible things to him, he said, is that many of the students start off not knowing anything about how to make a film and usually have low self-worth, low-confidence or are really shy, but he has seen many of the students grow their confidence and grow as a person by being involved in Milk River Productions.

Last year, another one of their films was chosen for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and two of the students, Dante Jackson, 16, a junior this year at Harlem High School who was the main editor for "Looking Forward From Yesterday," and Clinton Brown, 17, senior at Harlem High School this year who ran the cameras and assisted in editing for this year's film, attended and had a chance to meet directors and filmmakers from all across the world.

Todd said they grew as people and were talking with a number of big time filmmakers very comfortably and confidently. He added that he is not the only one who notices change, but the students and their families also see it.

"It's pretty cool just seeing them change and take pride in doing that project," he said. "... They see their self-worth."

Milk River Productions is a great resource for students, not only because they get to work creatively on what interests them, but also because students have to learn important writing and communication skills, which are not only important skills for the film industry, but for life, Todd said. Students also learn what it means to be a leader and what qualities a good leader needs to have.

"The filmmaking process is really secondary to all the other stuff they learn," he said.

He said the students know what they are capable of and Milk River Productions is working on two other student films as well as planning for a third. He added that a number of his older students in the group are also looking into filmmaking as a career.

Six of the students on the crew will be attending both of the upcoming festivals Bigby, Jackson, Brown, and ninth-graders Nellie King, 15, and, Mitchrena Begay, 14, and Amillia Blackcrow, 15.

"It's nice to see that a couple of kids from a small community made something outstanding," Bigby said. She added that she learned a lot from making "Looking Forward From Yesterday" as well as a new appreciation for her culture and the elders on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

King said her perspective changed after making the film and she learned a lot of new information about what Aaiinih and Nakoda people experienced in the early 1900s. She added that it is critically important their culture, their traditions, do not die out and it is up to the youth to learn and keep it going into the future. A number of students said they were excited to go to the film festival and expressed how not only the experience of producing a film, but the film itself had a large impact on how they saw themselves and their community.

"It's a great opportunity," Brown said.

He added that a number of students, in addition to the six who will be going to the festivals, put a large amount of work into the project and walked away with a number of different experiences and grew in a number of ways.

It is important students continue to be involved in activities like Milk River Productions because it is important for people to be able to express who they are, as an individual, a community and culture, Brown said. Jackson said it felt good to get feedback from the community and felt good to be able to share something with the community. He said it is important people both on and off the reservation get involved and try to do something positive for their own communities.

Jackson added that making films has opened a number of doors for him and the other students who have been involved and a world of possibilities lay in store.

"You don't get opportunities like this everyday," he said. "No matter where you come from, there are always things people can do." -- For more information about Milk River Production people can visit the groups Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/harlemunitedmt/?__tn__=%2Cd%2CP-R&eid=ARBWm6SglLroyNQy