Behind the Lens: Navajo Teens Struggle Up Heartbreak Hill
CreativeCOW presents Behind the Lens: Navajo Teens Struggle Up Heartbreak Hill -- Indie Film & Documentary Feature

Erica ScharfErica Scharf
New York All rights reserved.

Director/producer/cinematographer Erica Scharf is a producer on HGTV's House Hunters International, and has worked on a number of TV reality shows over the years, including The First 48, Miami Ink and Dual Survival. She was also assistant editor on the 2006 documentary God Grew Tired of Us.

But her first love is documentaries, a form she studied at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Her first, Up Heartbreak Hill, focuses on two Navajo teenagers as they navigate their culture and family issues to succeed in school and go to college. The documentary has played at over a dozen festivals including Cleveland International Film Festival, Arizona International Film Festival, Santa Barbara International Film Festival and American Indian Film Festival.

Up Heartbreak Hill airs on PBS program POV on Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 10 PM (check local listings). Starting July 20, it will also stream on POV's website.

Up Heartbreak Hill, PBS
The idea for Up Heartbreak Hill came from the realization that information about modern Native culture is noticeably lacking. In schools, students are taught about Native history and events that happened hundreds of years ago, but very little information is available about what's happening in Native American communities today. My hope with the film was to provide a glimpse into that world and foster greater understanding among people who might otherwise know little about each other.

I grew up in a small suburb outside New York City and my high school had not a single Native kid in a student body of 2,000. There were few Native communities anywhere in the area.

I had read about some kids on Navajo reservation who were phenomenal runners and since I'd just run my first marathon, that piqued my interest. I got in touch with some high school principals and coaches at a few different schools on the reservation to see if they thought their students would be interested in being part of a documentary. The response was really enthusiastic, so I made a scouting trip out to the area and visited four or five communities on the Navajo Nation.

Getting started was a little bit scary. In the beginning, I had no funding in place but I decided to take the plunge anyway. I'd always wanted to tell stories and I thought this was a really important story to tell. Of course, Up Heartbreak Hill is really the community's story, as well as that of the characters in it -- Tamara and Thomas and their families.

My co-producer and I spent about 10 days visiting different areas and we probably met 30 or 40 kids. Navajo, New Mexico, which was the first place we visited, is the one that ultimately became the focus of the documentary. Right away, I fell in love with the town and the people. We continued on our trip, but I felt drawn to Navajo, so we looped back and spent a few more days there. Back in New York, I spent a couple of months cutting a trailer with the footage I shot and making plans to come back to Navajo.

Thomas runs down Asaayi Road. Click image for larger view. Credit: Anthony Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga)

Thomas was one of the first students I met. He was really open, well-spoken and very willing to share his story. That's a bit of a rarity because kids in the community tend to be very reserved and respectful of their elders, and while a lot were excited about being part of a documentary, they were very shy in front of the camera. Thomas was the complete opposite of that. I met his father Jasper (Jazz) and his auntie Delphine, and I thought the relationship between Thomas and Jazz was really complex and compelling. Tamara is very intelligent, with great insights, and her parents were very involved in the community. The land itself was striking, completely unlike anyplace I've been. There's a single road leading into town, with red mesas jutting up along the side. It's really beautiful and the town was very welcoming. There are less than 2,000 people, so you get to know everyone really quickly. It was nice to be part of this small community; they really embraced me.

Tamara and Thomas look down at the Navajo Pine track. Click image for larger view. Credit: Anthony Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga)

On the scouting trip, I rented a Sony Z1-U and when I started shooting, I bought a Sony V1-U, which is HDV. As a field producer for The First 48, I was familiar with the Sony Z1-U and the V1-U is pretty similar. Cost was also a factor as the film was still entirely self-financed at that point. I wanted great quality but not a giant camera since I shot 90 percent of the documentary myself. I also wanted something on the small side that wouldn't be overwhelming for the subjects. I was familiar with the HDV workflow, too, since I'd worked not just as a field producer but also as an editor so it wound up being a really good choice.

I followed the students and their families throughout their senior year of high school, from August 2008 to May 2009. In total, I spent about six months living in Navajo. I shot from August until right before Thanksgiving and then I spent a few months back in New York, fundraising and working on a new trailer. I went back to Navajo for a couple of weeks in March and then spent the end of the school year there, from mid-April to the end of May.

Thomas, Tamara and Gabby on top of the Mesa. Click image for larger view. Credit: Anthony Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga)

There is the notion that the Native American community can be wary of outsiders, but I think that really depends. I stayed in Navajo Nation for long stretches of time and lived in the community. I think being around so much and spending the time to get to know people helped them to trust me and the project and what we were doing.

Director, Producer, Cinematographer Eric Scharf
Director/producer/cinematographer Erica Scharf
If I had just dropped in and out, I don't think the film would have been as intimate as it was and the community wouldn't have reacted the way it did. It was a very small crew, usually just me and one other person and never more than three people. We didn't storm into peoples' houses with tons of lights and equipment. It was always very small and I think that helped people to feel more comfortable. Obviously people are aware they're being filmed, but after a while, we became part of the landscape and I think they just got used to us being around. And it also helped that I look like I'm about 12. I think kids at the high school thought I might have been a student there.

Our edit process was a little unorthodox in that we didn't have one edit suite that we worked out of. I had an incredible associate editor Kelly Kendrick who managed digitizing all the footage. We worked from home, On Final Cut Pro 6, and Kelly, the editors and I each had a set of media on hard drives, so we could send projects back and forth and relink the media. I learned to cut on and still prefer Avid but for our purposes, FCP was definitely the better choice. I worked with The Edit Center, an editing school connected with Final Frame. They select a narrative and a doc project for each class and students are assigned one scene from each film. So, it's a trade-off where the students get to learn on real films and the filmmakers get a first pass on a bunch of the material. The scenes got tweaked and changed as we got further into the edit, but it was a great way to get an idea of what we had.

Cindy Lee, Isaac Wayton Megan Brennan and Janine Feczko are all credited as editors. Janine and Megan did a great job getting the ball rolling early on, helping to get scenes in place and wading through a ton of footage. When they moved on to other projects, Cindy and Isaac came aboard and they did an incredible job of taking it all the way through.

The editing process ebbed and flowed. We made a lot of progress and got a pretty fat rough cut together and then there was a long process of work-in-progress screenings, getting feedback from friends and colleagues, tweaking and more tweaking. We weren't editing consistently the entire time but, in total, it took two years. At the end, DigIt did the audio and Final Frame did the color and final conform.

Without question, this movie has been the focal point in my life for the past four years. It's been a constant; I go to bed thinking about it and I wake up thinking about it. I met my husband while I was shooting and we got married a few weeks ago. He was a third-grade teacher in Navajo and the assistant coach on the cross-country team. He's been an amazing help - handling logistics, teaching me to use Excel, transcribing interviews, designing the press kit and generally keeping me sane. He's definitely the film's unsung hero. (And he makes a small cameo in the theatrical version -- he has one line at the cross-country state meet.)

One of the most challenging aspects of making Up Heartbreak Hill was striking the balance between being a hands-off documentarian and really caring about the kids and what they were doing. The kids are great and because I spent so much time there, with the cameras off as well as on, I really got to know them. I straddled that place between wanting to give advice and feeling like I should be a fly on the wall. Being in high school is tough for everyone and I think they were incredibly brave to allow their senior year to be filmed. I've seen them grow up a lot since the film was made.

Tamara and Thomas run up Heartbreak Hill, an arduous stretch on the cross-country course. Click image for larger view. Credit: Anthony Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga)

I learned so much making Up Heartbreak Hill that I couldn't have learned any other way. I think it's easy to be critical; I do tend to be a perfectionist and I look back on a lot that I could have done better. When I got back to New York with 275 hours worth of footage, I really wished I had logged tapes in the field. But ultimately, I'm so happy with the film and so proud of it. Hearing the kids and other members of the community say that they like the film and that they feel like it's a really honest account of life in Navajo is the greatest accolade I could receive.

Title image: Thomas runs on Asaayi Road. Credit: Anthony Thosh Collins (Pima/Osage/Seneca-Cayuga)

Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.