Greek-American filmmaker Olga Valanos initially started out directing local television advertisements. Her interest in telling a deep story about American Indian life transitioned her from small-screen projects to a much larger one.
“Generation Red Nation,” Valanos’ documentary about reckless government policies that nearly destroyed American Indian tribes, may hit close to home for Greeks. The film, which premiered at the 9th Annual Red Nation Film Festival and won the Best Documentary award, focuses on unemployment, government bailouts, suicide rates, and disintegrating families during a time of political change. It also features interviews with American Indians who speak about the healing process.
Greek Reporter chatted with Valanos about the documentary, and what her plans are to make a film on the current situation in Greece as well.
How did you get into filmmaking?
This is my first feature length film. Before that, I directed short local TV ads in New Mexico. I grew up with a camera; my father introduced me to photography when I was about 5-years-old as photography has a tradition in my family. My grandfather was actually the official photographer for the building of the Marathon Dam in the 1920s. Since then, I have studied photography at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and have had exhibits in Baltimore and Washington DC.
Your documentary, Generation Red Nation, is about American Indians. Where did your interest in their culture stem from?
As a young adult, I grew interested in cultures that are in tune with nature’s rhythm. Native Americans and Aboriginal people’s stories fascinated me. I had a lot of questions that simply needed answers, most of them mystical, some having to do with the future of life on our planet. What better group of people to learn from than those that once lived in harmony with Earth and all its creatures. In New Mexico, I immersed myself in archeology and understanding the lives of the Anasazi, or Ancient Indians. However, it was in Colorado where I began an apprenticeship with a knowledgeable, highly talented Indian, Ron Hawks.
How difficult was it to gain access to speaking with American Indians on-camera for your documentary?
Funny you ask…
My music producer, Jim Wilson, was astonished at the honesty of the Indians; he had never seen a non-Indian achieve the level of access and openness as this movie provides. Access was provided by a fateful encounter. In 1999, I met a holy man at a Western gathering, and though I never met him prior to that, he said, “What took you so long?” In a short period of time, the man, Ron Hawks, a Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian, spiritually adopted me and lived with my husband and me for almost a year.
I was later welcomed into the Bear Clan by George Ironshield, a Dakota/Mandan. The adoptions were significant, because I wanted this to be an Indian film, not a film by a non-Indian. Perhaps they welcomed me because they knew my intentions were good, as Native American medicine people have a way of looking into people’s hearts. Also, though Indian country is vast, everyone knows each other and people talk. I owe a lot to a very special grandmother, Margaret Yankton, who introduced me to her friends and family on the reservation of Pine Ridge, South Dakota. She was well loved by many, and lived very traditionally, so they trusted her judgment. Not only was she featured in the film, but she also became a close friend, a mother figure to me. Many Indians taught me along the way. I think having a sense of humor about my own ignorance helped as well. Maybe they took pity on me as a parent would do to a child!
Were there any hurdles in making the doc?
Making it was both impossible and effortless. Remarkably, a friend that believed in the project lent me a professional mini-DV cam. I found that creative professionals that had achieved their goals, like Grammy Award winner Jim Wilson, happily became part of my team. He not only was my music producer, but also became a mentor in the entertainment business. Others that hadn’t achieved their own goals didn’t take me seriously. Perhaps this was because I am a first time director, I am female (under 20% of directors are women), and it wasn’t shot on HD due to budgetary constraints. I had to use the equipment I had at the time because the moment would have been lost.
In order to create a rough cut, I had to quickly learn video editing, via a self-guided DVD course. My mantra became, “How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time!”
While filming in North Dakota, tribal members started a rumor that I was an FBI agent. Because there is a huge distrust of the FBI, we realized that it was time to leave. After all, many people own guns! Another time, while at a convenience store, I couldn’t hold my tongue and asked the vendor why prices were marked up 300% when people are struggling. He gave me a look that could kill, and I hightailed it out of there! Subsequently, the storeowner was caught in a fraudulent scheme of renting out property that she didn’t own.
Weird things happened during this journey to make the documentary – three hard drives crashed, one of them literally smoked. Many of my interviewees died, including the music composer Jim Wilson, funding assistance fell through, and then suddenly a donor appeared. In sum, it was and continues to be a “long strange trip,” as Jerry Garcia would say.
What was the most fascinating/surprising part of the entire process?
The journey into Lakota Spiritual practices opened my eyes. What I lived was nothing short of what Carlos Castaneda experienced in his writings, but without the aid of hallucinogens. It seems that Native Americans retained something that many modern religions have lost. My life was permanently changed.
The doc premiered at the 9th Annual Red Nation Film Festival in November. What was that like?
Fantastic. Joanelle Romero, the film festival’s founder and Russell Means, who was on the board, completely embraced this film. Two weeks before he died, Russell Means – actor, activist, and perhaps greatest Native American leader of our century – viewed it, called Joanelle, and said, “Screen it!” [and] Joanelle said, “This message has to be heard.”
What was the general response?
My heart was elated when Native Americans stated that they loved the film. The issues resonated in both Indian and non-Indian hearts. Some were stunned by the film’s honest, real view of Native America. Non-Indians were moved to tears; wanting to remedy the plight of Indians. The segment on alcoholism personally touched one non-Indian. Other non-Indians simply didn’t know how bad conditions are on the reservation. The movie opened their eyes. Winning the award was surreal, basically, it is the “Indian Oscar,” and so it is a great honor.
Generation Red Nation tackles unemployment, suicide and other political issues happening amongst Native Americans. With everything going on in Greece at the moment, do you think there are similarities between the way things are affecting each culture?
Yes, I do. In both nations, the young generation is either being driven to despair or to leave their homeland in order to find a job and survive. The unemployment rate in Pine Ridge South Dakota, the Oglala Lakota Nation is astronomical at 89%. Both situations are the product of bad decisions made by a few political leaders, causing intolerable suffering among many people. Both situations are equally heartbreaking – seeing educated Greeks become homeless and climbing suicide rates is alarming and visible in both communities.
There are some historical parallels, and though this isn’t a history documentary, the effects of political decisions are still evident today. The Turkish occupation forbade children from learning their culture. Similarly, Native American children were torn away from their families and forcibly assimilated in boarding schools. There, they were taught that to be Indian is shameful. Abuse and self-loathing was taught at those schools. Their belongings were burned, their language and spiritual ways were forbidden, and their hair was shorn. The next generation grew up without parents, little work skills, and without their culture. To top it off, chemical dependency and alcohol abuse robbed children of their parents; elderly grandparents raise the children.
The main difference between the Greek society and the Pine Ridge Indian reservation is the fact that the majority of the residents (more than 2/3) are chemically dependent. Many years of reckless government policies resulted in complete socio/cultural/economic genocide, America’s holocaust.
Like Greece, Plains Indian reservations suffer one of the worst educational systems which is grossly underfunded. So, they don’t even have a chance to get ahead. The only way to get rich quick and feel a sense of belonging is to join a gang, sell drugs and wield guns. The destruction has turned inward. The tribal governments are not able to fix the situation, whether due to corruption, a lack of resources, or inadequate training.
Do you think you’d consider ever making a film about the crisis that’s happening in Greece?
Actually, I would like to create a film about centenarians in Greece, the self-sustaining island and/or mountain people. I think they hold the keys to survival. Life goes on in their villages; they survived world wars and will survive this economic crisis.
As with the Native Americans that are in a perilous cycle, the best way to break it is with humor. There is a lot of material that could appear very funny in a parody, such as gluttonous political corruption, archaic gender dynamics, the lack of boundaries between church, state, and business to name a few. Humor opens a passage to healing.
Where in Greece are you from?
My dad’s family is from Ioannina. In fact, they have been there since the 1550s when they emigrated from Venice. My mother’s side are Athenians, and from Kalambaka.
Have you visited recently?
Unfortunately, I went in 2007 to release my mom’s spirit. Fortunately, it was at Mt. Olympus, Litohoro, which was a perfect combination of mountain and sea. It was my first time in Olympus, what a beautiful environment and great food! Love the tyropita!
What’s next for you?
To get this film distributed, and raise public awareness of the plight of the Native Americans. It would be great if this snowballed into actual government changes and real improvement in the lives of Native Americans. Of course, I hope to make more films!
For more information on “Generation Red Nation,” visit the film’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Generationrednationmovie
View the trailer here
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