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"It's About Humanity": Sterlin Harjo's 'Love and Fury' Shows Struggles And Joys Of Native Artists

Seminole and Muscogee Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo has been busy. He's set to write and produce a series for FX called 'Reservation Dogs' with Taika Waititi and he was recently appointed to the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. KOSU's Allison Herrera caught up with him to talk about his latest documentary film, 'Love And Fury.'

Shot over the course of 2019, Harjo and his crew followed the careers of more than 20 Indigenous artists as they navigated their careers and identities abroad and in the United States.

'Love and Fury' has a different feeling than most documentaries.

It's not so much of a film as it is a conversation between the artists whose careers range from dance to punk bands to poetry, visual art and performance. The film explores their identities as Native artists and what it means to push past that label in a post-colonial world.

Credit Provided

'Love and Fury' is a film Harjo has wanted to make for a while — to showcase the complexities and nuances of the Indigenous art world whose work isn't necessarily tied to their identity but is rooted in it.

"I don't think that I never meant to not make this film about identity. I just wanted to have a new conversation about it," said Harjo. He thinks that Native art has been "shackled to history by a false vision of what Native people are through the settler gaze of our current reality."

The diversity of the artists and their visions don't just come across in their presence, but they come through in the way in which the film was made.

"Most documentaries will have an interview and then b-roll or slow motion footage to cover the interview," said Harjo talking about the style of 'Love and Fury.'

Harjo is a fan of Les Blank and documentaries from the 1970s that have an auteur style of shooting. It's an off-the-cuff style that captures intimate moments rather than the sit down style of documentaries we're used to watching on Netflix or Amazon.

Harjo made his crew watch https://youtu.be/FjnXkhwubzQ" target="_blank">'Heartworn Highways' and https://youtu.be/R1D65LMlZiw" target="_blank">'A Poem is a Naked Person' by Blank so they could get a feel for the style he was going for in this film. He says sometimes people filming scenes will relax if there are multiple cameras on a set. He wanted the people he worked with to be on their toes.

"Pretend that your camera's the only camera in the room," Harjo told his crew. "And if you don't get it, no one gets it."

Consider the opening sequence: White Mountain Apache performer and musician Laura Ortman plays in her Brooklyn apartment as we cut away to people talking, hugging and posing for selfies. The contrast between this solo performance and a large gallery scene brings us closer to the art form and its maker. Because the camera is constantly rolling, we capture intimate moments, such as conversations between Chickasaw musician Micah P. Hinson and the crew have right before he steps out on stage with a cigarette holder in one hand and the guitar in the other claiming he doesn't know any of the words to the songs he's about to sing.

Ojibwe visual artist Haley Greenfeather English and her dad Sam English are featured in the film together drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes as they talk about navigating the complexities of the art world and the label that comes with being a Native artist.

"It's difficult to come into being an artist when so many people had expectations," said Greenfeather English. "What I should make, what I should look like, how I should act, how we should talk, what I should believe in."

Greenfeather English said it was great to be in the film and make art with other Indigenous artists who get it.

In one film sequence, Greenfeather English is painting with Bobby “Dues” Wilson, a Sisseteon-Wahpeton Dakota visual artist, and Cannupa Hanska Luger, Mandan, Hidatsa, Airkara, Lakota multidisciplinary artist painting a "well-endowed" Lakota trickster on the side of building in Albuquerque at night. A security officer pulls up and they tell him the story and they all laugh about.

Credit Alexis Munoa Dyer
Sterlin Harjo

"We've always made our lives beautiful," said Cannupa Honska Luger, who lives outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Honska Luger says there is a long history of adaptation in Native art.

"As a Native artist, you kind of get pigeonholed into what that is," he says referring to what the art market expects of artists like himself and Greenfeather.  

During Standing Rock, Honska Luger created the Mirror Shield Project at the Oceti Sakowin camp. He was inspired by protesters in Ukraine's Orange Revolution who held up mirrors at police. 

The film is full of  moments like the one between Wilson, Honska Luger and Greenfeather-humor, tenderness and beauty. It’s a commonality in many of Harjo's films, like the relationship between Frankie and Irene in 'Barking Water' or the emotional story in 'This May be The Last Time' about the search for Harjo's grandfather in Sasakwa, Oklahoma after a deadly car crash.

"I wanted to show how artists, these artists kind of use the medium, whether they are political or not," said Harjo. "I think that being Native is very political. The fact that you're born Native makes you an activist because you weren't meant to be here."

'Love and Fury' shows the struggles and realities these artists face but in a way that's relatable. Harjo didn't want to make a cookie cutter film about Indigenous struggles.

"Not that it can't be positive, but like it shouldn't be fake," Harjo explained. "And reality is somewhere in the middle-where we deal with struggles and we deal with love and pain. And that's kind of what this film and title refers to, 'Love and Fury.'"

It's about being human.

That's one of the many gifts of Harjo's storytelling and 'Love and Fury' brings humanity in spades. The ending is a perfect example. Harjo weaves in scenes of Micah P. Hinson cuddling his child while shelving DVDs at a Blockbuster video store in Denison, Texas, and playing a heartbreaker of a song.

His films touch on what brings us together despite who we are. It's something that resonates.

FEATURED ARTISTS, TRIBAL AFFILIATION & DISCIPLINE (In Order of Appearance) Micah P. Hinson (Chickasaw Nation) Musician Laura Ortman (White Mountain Apache) Musician Cannupa Hanska Luger (Mandan, Hidatsa, Airkara, Lakota) Multidisciplinary Artist Haley Greenfeather English (Ojibwe) Artist and Educator Sam English (Ojibwe) Artist Bobby “Dues” Wilson (Sisseteon-Wahpeton Dakota) Writer, Poet, Visual Artist, Comedian Tick Suck - Warren Realrider (Pawnee) Sound Artist Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Aluet) Multidisciplinary Artist, Vocalist, Guitarist Julia Keefe (Nez Perce) Jazz Vocalist Penny Pitchlynn (Choctaw) Musician Yatika Fields (Osage, Cherokee, Mvskoke) Painter & Muralist Blackbelt Eagle Scout - NAME (Klamath, Modoc, Swinomish, Inupiaq) Musician Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) Poet Tommy Orange (Southern Cheyenne) Writer Nathan Young (Delware, Cherokee, Osage) Spirit Plate, Installation artist Raven Chacon (Dine ́) Composer and Artist Demian Dine ́Yazhi (Dine ́) Transdisciplinary Artist Emily Johnson (Yup’ik) Dancer, Choreographer, Writer Ginger Dunnill (Hawaiian) Curator, Sound Artist Nani Chacon (Diné, Navajo), Painter, Muralist Becki Jones (Diné) WeedRat Vocalist/Guitar Aku Matu (Iñupiaq) Installation artists, Vocalis

Director: Sterlin Harjo
Executive Producer: Robin Ballenger
Producer: Sterlin Harjo
Co-Producers: Jeremy Charles, Matt Leach, Jessica McEver
Directors of Photography: Jeremy Charles, Sterlin Harjo, Kyle Bell, Matt Leach, Shane Brown
Sound By: Royce Sharp, James Payne
Music By: Micah P. Hinson
Editor: Sterlin Harjo

Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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