Directors Maya Stark and Adi Lavy are both originally from Israel, but have been living in New York for the past 14 years. Stark initially desired to make fiction films, but says she became more of an observer than a dreamer during film school. “I wanted to make sense of the world around me and try to find meaning in the smallest or largest acts of human behavior,” she says.
Lavy worked as a documentary photographer, but became a filmmaker after meeting the subjects at the heart of “Sun Kissed.” “I fell in love with Dorey and Yolanda and their story and after several attempts through photography and interactive photo series, I realized the best way to convey their story was to make a film.”
The directors cite Werner Herzog as an inspiration for their documentary “Sun Kissed.”
“Even though his films are topic-driven rather than character-driven, he is able to capture the essence of what it means to be human in one sound byte, one interview, one look… he does it in such a powerful way that many character-driven films are unable to do in 90 minutes,” said Stark.
What it’s about: “Sun Kissed” is a film about a life-changing journey of rediscovery. When a Navajo couple learns that their children have a disorder that makes exposure to sunlight fatal, they find out that their reservation is a hotbed for this rare genetic disease and they go on a journey to find out why.
The directors say: “It was fascinating for us, as Israelis, to learn of the taboos surrounding the most traumatic event in Navajo history. Having grown up in a society that sanctifies the remembrance of the Holocaust, we were always encouraged to have a specific relationship with our history and its ramifications. It was fascinating for us to accompany Dorey and Yolanda as they first learned about their history and later developed their own relationship to it, ultimately leading them to a rediscovery of who they are.
“As we developed our cinematic language, we worked hard to create a visual style and pacing for the film that would reflect the Navajo way of life, particularly the role of nature as a constant character in dialogue with Native people’s lives. We framed the story of ‘Sun Kissed’ in the rhythms of Reservation life and the stark beauty of the land surrounding the relative poverty of the homes. The brightness of the New Mexico sun stands in heartbreaking counterpoint to the most striking effect of XP – making any exposure to sunlight fatal to children. We also shot ‘Sun Kissed’ on HD and combined verité scenes with more lyrical sequences that enhance the natural beauty of the Navajo land and the world surrounding it.
“We believe it makes viewing ‘Sun Kissed’ a much more unique and fuller experience.”
On the challenges: “The biggest challenge was creating trust with the Navajo community. Dorey and Yolanda, the parents we were following, took us in and made us feel like family almost immediately. But the Navajo community at large, was more suspicious of us as outsiders. So the biggest challenge was to gain their trust and make sure they knew we were there because Dorey and Yolanda wanted us to tell their story and that we were going to do so with respect for them and their tradition.
“After two years of filming the movie, when Dorey and Yolanda had finally met other XP families on the Reservation and discovered there might be a connection to the Long Walk, we found ourselves confronted by forces that didn’t want us to make this film. The taboo surrounding any discussion of the Long Walk was so great, that we were stonewalled by members of the community and almost gave up on the project. As outsiders to the Navajo community we wanted to be respectful of their culture. We realized that it wasn’t our place to move forward with the story and decided to pack up and go home, until Dorey and Yolanda asked us not to give up on their story. They realized how deeply they had internalized the Western narrative about the Long Walk, and wanted to finally understand what had happened there from their point of view. It was then that we realized how important this story is, and we found the strength and justification to push forward with Dorey and Yolanda as they went up against the silence and taboos. The very process of making the movie showed what they were up against in their quest for answers. As we continued shooting, several members of the Navajo community came forward and championed the cause, believing that these controversial issues should be talked about and dealt with. That’s what’s beginning to happen on the Reservation today.”
What would you like LAFF audiences to come away with after seeing your film? “We believe that ‘Sun Kissed”s message is very important as the world is becoming less tolerant of minorities and ‘others.’ Even though ‘Sun Kissed’ is an all American story, this film serves as a cautionary tale of what happens when we try to colonize and assimilate another group of people. Few of us ever realize that 150 years later, people are still dealing with the effects of what we have done. In that sense, Dorey and Yolanda’s intimate tale embodies the larger story of their tribe and illuminates the consequences of forgotten historical events. We hope that this important and compelling story will be as impactful for audiences as it has been for us.
“We know with the current state of the doc film industry, where the most desired topics are the economy, environment and health care, Native American issues can fall back and not take the front seat. We hope that when audiences and industry members see the film, they will understand the strength and importance of this story, that illuminates a human rights issue and serves as a cautionary tale for us all in this day and age.”
Indiewire invited LAFF competition directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2012 festival. Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch for the latest profiles.