“Their agenda is that they want an activist film that goes into the history of their struggle and presents a contemporary portrait of what’s happening in Black Mesa right now. But it’s not an activist film. I think ultimately it has undertones of activism because of the subject matter, but an activist film follows a certain structure and I’m definitely moving more towards something else.”
Camille Summers-Valli is discussing Big Mountain, a film she’s currently editing that’s set for release later this year. It follows the lives of around 25 indigenous Navajo in Arizona attempting to preserve their traditional way of life on the land. They are all that remains of a population of 11,000 who were relocated from their ancestral homes in the 1970s.
“There’s a lot of conspiracy theories about the way this happened,” says Camille, “but ultimately the corporate interests of a coal mining company (who don’t need to be named) managed to lobby the government to pass a law that moved these people off the land. It turns out the area is actually the biggest coal deposit in the United States and most of LA, Las Vegas and Phoenix’s electricity is provided by the coal there. The Navajo were just in the way. Most of them were relocated to urban areas but there was also a lot of resistance. Some people just decided to stay in their ancestral homelands.
“Now there’s constant government harassment. The coal mine is a big strip mine and there’s people scattered all around it whose land has suffered a lot of environmental damage. It’s affecting their livelihoods already, but as the coal mine is looking to expand and there’s increasing interest in natural gas there’s even more pressure to get them off.”
Camille came across this story on a research trip with her father, who’s also a documentary filmmaker. He was compiling a book on America’s Back To The Land Movement when they met a young activist who’d been a long-term campaigner for Navajo rights. Camille followed him to Arizona, “hesitantly at first because I didn’t like the idea of just herding sheep in the snow for no reason,” and gradually learned about the history of their struggle.
"For the first three years I really didn’t pick up a camera and I was already part of the furniture when I started filming. It meant there was already a level of trust and I think they loved the fact that I would herd sheep and then come back and film them."Camille Summers-Valli
“My relationship with them started as a sheep-herder and a supporter. I would herd their sheep and help them chop wood and do whatever they needed because they always need young people around to help them keep up their workload. For the first three years I really didn’t pick up a camera and I was already part of the furniture when I started filming. It meant there was already a level of trust and I think they loved the fact that I would herd sheep and then come back and film them. They knew that my intentions were in the right place.”
Now Camille’s sat on a feature-length documentary that explores not only the elders of the tribe and their traditional lifestyles but also their children and grandchildren, who have grown up in two anachronistic worlds; speaking two languages, living between cultures and torn between the new and the old.
“The younger generations of Navajo kids are really phenomenal people. They’re trying to hold on to their traditional roots but at the same time are being inundated by the modern world and contemporary colonisation. There’s still a lot of Navajo being spoken, it’s still being taught in schools, but at the same time you’re out in these incredibly rural areas and people are on their iPhones. It’s pretty conflicting when you’re hearing that Apple ‘ding’ noise in a remote field of sheep.”
"There’s still a lot of Navajo being spoken, it’s still being taught in schools, but at the same time you’re out in these incredibly rural areas and people are on their iPhones. It’s pretty conflicting when you’re hearing that Apple ‘ding’ noise in a remote field of sheep."Camille Summers-Valli
Camille doesn’t see this as a bad thing though, it’s simply a clash of cultures. In fact it’s a subject she’s keen to dedicate a future documentary to.
“Hopefully this summer I’ll be shooting a film about about how hip-hop has influenced a lot of the young Navajo. There’s a huge hip hop culture among sheep herders in that Navajo nation. And they rap in their own language as well as a way of them working through a lot of marginalisation that they experience in deprived areas.”
For now though the focus is on Big Mountain and the photo series’ that run in parallel to the project. The only concern left is whether her subjects will appreciate the results.