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‘Reservation Dogs’ Shines a Light on ‘Heartfelt Comedy’ of Indigenous Funerals

"If we were to look at cinema and ask, 'If you can pick one project that defines white filmmaking what would it be?' You could never," K. Devery Jacobs says.

RESERVATION DOGS -- “Run” --  Season 2, Episode 2 (Airs August 3) —Pictured: Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan. CR: Shane Brown/FX.

“Reservation Dogs”

Shane Brown/FX

K. Devery Jacobs, who plays the acerbic Elora Danan on FX’s “Reservation Dogs,” knows this season deals with heavier themes. In the fallout of their best friend’s suicide in Season 1, the Res Dogs are in a state of healing. Now, in Season 2, Elora’s grandmother Mabel is dying. In the fourth episode, named after Elora’s eponymous nana, the community joins together to send her onto her next journey.

For Jacobs, who co-wrote “Mabel,” it was an opportunity for her to showcase the joy and humor that happens during Indigenous funerals. “In the few non-Native funerals I’ve been to from Western culture, [it’s] a hands-off experience where the casket is closed [and] we don’t talk about it. For me, that feels like [the] polar opposite of what I grew up around in my community,” Jacobs told IndieWire via Zoom.

It also was an opportunity to look at a different facet of Indigenous experiences, one that is universal yet is specific to the community. Though “Reservation Dogs” is no longer the only show with a primarily Indigenous cast and creative team currently on television, Jacobs explains that creatives still aren’t at the point where they’re seen as filmmakers first and Indigenous second.

“If we were to look at cinema as a whole and ask, “If you can pick one project that defines white filmmaking what would it be?” You could never. So, for us to be expected to represent all Indigenous people is just unrealistic because what we can and should do at the end of the day is focus on the story at hand that we’re trying to tell and if it’s not all encompassing of Indigenous storytelling, then that just means there needs to be more stories out there,” said Jacobs.

Jacobs went on to talk about the specifics of writing and filming the “Mabel” episode of “Reservation Dogs” and why she’ll now be using her full name on filmmaking projects.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

IndieWire: Can you talk about how you came to co-write “Mabel?”

Devery Jacobs: I have been writing since 2016. [Showrunner Sterlin Harjo] had known of my work before, with my short films, as a writer/director. I’ve also written some features and series, which I’m in the midst of making. But I had never worked in a writers room before as a staff writer or an episodic writer. To my surprise I was just invited before I could even send off my samples or anything. I was really grateful to Sterlin for that, but I was only supposed to be in the room for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t supposed to be part of the whole thing. I was contributing good ideas, I hope, and they extended my time in the room to a couple more weeks, and then to the whole first part of the writers room before the holidays, and then the second part after the holidays.

RESERVATION DOGS -- “Mabel” -- Season 2, Episode 4 (Airs August 17) — Pictured: (l-r) Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack. CR: Shane Brown/FX.

“Reservation Dogs”

Shane Brown/FX

I didn’t have any agenda to further Elora’s storyline. I went in there mostly focusing on other people’s storylines and hoping to contribute to the season as a whole. When we were breaking down the season, I was especially passionate about the role of women in our communities in this episode and them passing the baton down to the younger generation of Elora, Jackie, [and] Willie Jack to hold it down. Women are the center of our cultures in so many Indigenous nations. I was also passionate about the hands-on, heartfelt comedy that happens around death in our communities.

I was passionate about talking about all of those things that Sterlin asked me to write this episode with him and I was excited, and I was up for the challenge. I was also intimidated as all hell because I don’t think I was prepared to write for Elora, but I feel like I was able to separate mentally and focus on the story with Sterlin, who I know pulled a lot from his own experiences [with] the the passing of his grandmother. It was a personal episode in writing and one that I am really proud to have acted in and been a writer on.

This episode tries to examine grief in a new way. What did you know you definitely wanted to focus on?

We knew that we would be doing an episode around Mabel passing. Although she’s experiencing loss again, Elora gets to witness Mabel’s death and a loved one’s passing in the right way, meaning of natural causes, they’re surrounded by community members, and they’re being sent off in the way that we do. It was really important that Elora experience that and we get to see Elora release a lot of that pain she’s been carrying for Mabel, but also for her mom, and for Daniel. At the end we get to see Mabel thrive in all of her glory, in her bingo attire; she really is in a better place. That was an important lesson for Elora to learn because it was one she hadn’t had a lot of experience in seeing before.

When gearing up for the episode, [director Danis Goulet and I] had many conversations where I told her, “I trust you with this episode and I’m letting it go. This is something I’ve been working so closely on, and now I’m handing it over to you and I just can’t wait to see what you do with it.” I took off my [metaphorical] writer’s hat, and I put on my actor’s hat and I was able to focus as Elora.

As an actor and as a writer I had hopes, and dreams, and prayed for these characters. I prayed for Elora to find healing. I’m not a religious person—indigenous spirituality, yes—but I’m not necessarily somebody who prays, but I did for Elora. I hoped that she found some solace, and healing in this experience, and I think that energy was carried through creating the episode.

What was that filming process like?

We film every episode in around four days. For the first day it was a lot of community stuff. The second day was all of the scenes that took place in Mabel’s bedroom which was 12 feet by 12 feet. It was a tiny room with a whole crew, and many people in it. I didn’t realize how many people I had it written for until I saw everyone squished in one space, and then gave Danis the task of figuring out blocking and how we’re gonna shoot it, which I thought she masterfully did. The second day was a bit of a heavier day with the scenes with Mabel’s bedroom and her passing. My last scene was the final scene of letting go of all of her emotions at the end of the episode. By filming it that way [it] wasn’t just a release for Elora, but a release for myself in shooting all of that.

RESERVATION DOGS -- “Mabel” -- Season 2, Episode 4 (Airs August 17) — Pictured: (l-r) Paulina Alexis as Willie Jack, Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, Elva Guerra as Jackie. CR: Shane Brown/FX.

“Reservation Dogs”

Shane Brown/FX

Well, and you could say the country needs to release some emotions, too. Did you see parallels to what’s going on in the world when writing it?

I don’t know if we were looking at society as a whole when we were filming it. In the “Res Dogs” writers room we put up blinders to the rest of the world and we look inward at our own communities. This show is ultimately a love letter to our community. It is the show we all could have benefited from having when we were young.

What entices you to a writing project and wanting to wear multiple hats?

The way I look at it is I’m a storyteller, behind the lens and in front of it. As an actor, I am someone who lends my skills and my craft to helping somebody else tell their story, whether that’s the director, whether that’s the writer, the showrunner of a project. Whereas as a filmmaker, behind the camera, that’s when I draw from my own experiences, and I deal with things around my own identity, whether it’s my queerness, whether it’s my identity [as a] Mohawk woman. Those are areas that become more personal, so in this I definitely pulled from my community and my upbringing.

As a filmmaker moving forward that’s also a reason why I use my full name, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, it’s my family name that was given to me. When it comes to writing and directing I’m interested in passion projects and things that speak to my soul. As an actor, not to say that I don’t choose those roles also from that, but I’m more interested in learning from other people, exploring characters outside of myself.

When “Reservation Dogs” premiered it broke a lot of barriers with Indigenous representation. Now there are other shows in its wake. How do you look at this shift in representation?

I’ll take it! I will say, yes, this is a moment, but it’s a moment that’s launching a whole wave of Indigenous storytelling that will only grow in years to come. That’s what I’m determined for this moment to do. We aren’t just an anomaly or a flash in the pan. It’s through being truthful that we end up becoming universal, and for the future of Indigenous storytelling I am excited for a moment when we can be considered as just filmmakers, and just creatives who are telling our stories.

“Reservation Dogs” airs on FX and streams on FX on Hulu Wednesdays.

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