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Sterlin Harjo, “Barking Water”: Relationship, a Closed Theater, the American Indian

Sterlin Harjo, "Barking Water": Relationship, a Closed Theater, the American Indian

In writer/director Sterlin Harjo’s “Barking Water,” takes viewers on a “road trip” through his native Oklahoma. As described by the Sundance Film Festival, Harjo’s film centers on Irene and Frankie, who have a difficult past, but Frankie needs Irene to help him with one task. He needs to get out of the hospital and go home to his daughter and new grandbaby to make amends. “Irene had been his one, true, on-again, off-again love until they parted ways for good. But to make up for the past, Irene agrees to help him in this trying time.With steady and graceful performances by Richard Ray Whitman as Frankie and Casey Camp-Horinek as Irene, this story takes viewers for a ride in the backseat of Frankie and Irene’s Indian car, listening to their past and the rhythmic soundtrack that sets the beat for a redemptive road journey. Harjo wraps us in the charm and love of Oklahoma through the people and places Irene and Frankie visit along the way. In this sparingly sentimental and achingly poignant film, Harjo claims his place as one of the most truthful and honest voices working in American cinema today. ‘Barking Water’ is an expression of gratitude for the ability to have lived and loved.”

“Barking Water”
Sundance Film Festival American Spectrum
Director: Sterlin Harjo
Screenwriter: Sterlin Harjo
Executive Producers: Jack Clark, Joel Hulett
Producer: Chad Burris
Cinematographer: Fredrick Schroeder
Editor: David Michael Maurer
Composer: Ryan Beveridge
Cast: Casey Camp-Horinek, Richard Ray Whitman, Jon Proudstar, Aaron Riggs, Quese Imc, Ryan Redcorn

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Sterlin Harjo. I am from the Seminole and Creek tribes of Oklahoma, 29 years old, and I currently live in Tulsa, Oklahoma but I grew up in a small town in southeastern Oklahoma called Holdenville. As a child I always wanted to be an artist, and from as far back as I can remember I drew pictures from comic books, from old Western books, images of war and of little cartoon characters like Garfield and Bugs Bunny. I have always been a fan of films. As a young boy we had a small theater in our town and we would all go watch movies on the weekends. My dad knew a friend of a friend who worked for a cable company and he hooked us up with free HBO, so I watched movies that way as well. My dad and I had a thing for old war movies. But, then in high school the theater closed and became a church. So it goes…

What prompted the idea for “Barking Water” and how did it evolve?

The film is about a couple that have been in a 40 year on-again, off-again relationship. The man, Frankie, is on his deathbed and the woman, Irene, comes back to him one last time to break him out of the hospital and take him back home. It’s about the people they visit and the time that they share as she races against the clock to get him home before he dies. I wanted to make a film about someone that didn’t want to die in a hospital. I wanted to explore the idea that a hospital becomes like a prison where you are locked away from life outside. Then my grandmother got sick and I went with her to the hospital and we sat with her for a week. We all thought she was going to die. She thought she was going to die. She dictated a letter to my mom and signed it saying, basically, that she didn’t want to be kept alive with machines and that she wanted to go home to die if things got worse.

She gave me the letter and told me that it was up to me to see it through because she didn’t believe her daughters would have the heart to let her die. My grandmother pulled through and is doing well, but I experienced first hand this idea of someone wanting to go home to die. I had also wanted to make a film about an older couple for a while. I wanted to make a film that explored the truth of an older couple’s relationship– one that wasn’t all happy and stress free, but one that was real. I could never find the context in which to tell a story like this, but after the experience with my grandmother I decided to bring these two ideas together. The merging of these two stories became “Barking Water.”

“Barking Water” director Sterlin Harjo. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

John Cassavetes is a big influence on me. I love the idea of getting family, friends, and real people together to make a film. On this production, I decided to use a small crew and most of the actors are non actors (including some family). We shot the film in sequence and my cinematographer, Fred Schroeder, had the cameras ready at all times to hit record. I wanted the filming to be as spontaneous as the roadtrip that the characters were taking, so we basically took the trip with them. I set up a creatively free environment for myself and the actors. If an actor wanted to improvise or change a line it was encouraged, and if I wanted to change or write a new scene I did it. During my last film I would sometimes feel [a sudden] inspiration, but due to a tight schedule and it being my first film I wouldn’t do anything about it. On this film if I felt inspired to change something or makeup a new scene we would do it on the spot. The crew that I had was great. They were ready for anything. Chad Burris, the producer, was also supportive in this effort.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

The funding came together fairly quickly. Dolphin Bay wanted to make a film and I had a script almost ready to go. They contacted the producer and he called me. We had known the guys at Dolphin Bay for a while and we decided it would be a good idea to work together. The only other challenges were things that we knew going in. We knew we didn’t have a big crew, and we knew that we would all be doing more than one job.

What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?

One of my favorite films of all time is “Black Cat/White” Cat by Emir Kusturica. I love his films. The world in which he creates is a fascinating, sad, heartbreaking, and beautiful world. I could live in those films. Outside of film I am heavily influenced by music. Tom Waits is usually on my rotation. During the writing of this film, I was listening to a lot of Beirut and my friend/musician Samantha Crain (who is on the soundtrack as well). Also, I get really inspired by literature, so much so that I sometimes can’t finish a book because I want to start writing myself.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I tell stories from a place and about people that mainstream audiences rarely hear about. I didn’t make any money off the sale of my last film “Four Sheets To The Wind,” but it was great to hear how popular it was in Indian communities in Oklahoma. I had people that I would run into on the street tell me that their whole family loved it and would burn each other copies and wear copies out because they watched it so much. That felt good. That gave me great pride because I knew that some of these communities, especially Seminole and Creek communities, were seeing themselves for the first time on screen. That’s success to me. Of course now as I get older I want to make money as well!

Do you have any other projects you’re currently working on?

I have a documentary that I’m working on. I also have four scripts that I’m working on at the moment. Two that I hope to just get out there and sell as a writer and two others that I hope to direct myself. One of the scripts that I’m working on is with artist Ryan Red Corn… it’s one that I hope to direct. It’s about two guys working for a tribal newspaper that uncover some criminal activity in the town that they live and they become accidental eco-terrorists. It’s gonna be awesome.

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