Nanobah Becker

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Nanobah Becker - photograph by Othell Begay

Director Nanobah Becker (Navajo) was chosen for Project: Involve, a 9-month production and professional development program of Film Independent in Los Angeles. In 2009 she served as a guest selector for NMAI’s Native American Film + Video Festival. In 2006 she was one of 22 media artists awarded a National Video Resources Media Arts Fellowship to produce her newest project, working title Full, a fiction film about a gay Navajo man who returns to the queer Native American nightlife in Albuquerque after failing as a disc jockey in New York City. Becker was selected for the Native Forum Filmmaker's Workshop at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival to work on script development for a feature film. She received her MFA at the Film Division of Columbia University, specializing in directing. In 2004 she was an NMAI program intern at the Film and Video Center in New York, and taught a summer course on narrative film production for Native American high school students in New Mexico. Becker was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico and received a BA in Anthropology from Brown University. She spent several years working with Native youth both at the Navajo Nation and in Albuquerque at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute before deciding to pursue filmmaking. She currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California.

February 2009


"I have always been fascinated by film. Recognizing the lack of media reflecting the experience of Navajo youth, I decided there was ample room for me to explore filmmaking. That got me started. What keeps me going is the elusiveness of it. Filmmaking is a craft that can never be mastered I'm constantly learning with each new project, each new idea."

Screened by NMAI:

The 6th World (2011), Director
I Lost My Shadow (2011), Director
Shimásání (2009), Producer
Conversion (2006), Director
Grace (2005), Producer
Flat (2003), Director


Interview Text:

 Sierra Ornelas Interviews Nanobah Becker, October 2008 NYC

SO: How many of the Native American Film and Video Festivals have you attended? And in what capacity?

NB: This will be my third, in March of '09. I attended the 2003 film festival; I was actually on the staff then. My short Conversion played with Blackhorse Lowe's Fifth World in the 2006 festival, and this time I'm a selector. So three totally different roles each time.

SO: You've watched a lot of works this week.

NB: Yeah, we've been watching a lot. I really love Shane Belcourt's Tkaronto, which is a feature length narrative film. For me as an urban Native, I really related to the story and the characters, their issues and their quests to find themselves in an environment away from their reservation. I thought that the cinematography was beautiful and the editing and the music. As a piece of cinema it was really, really impressive.

SO: Filmmakers are getting younger—do you feel like there is a new wave of Native cinema, and even Navajo cinema as a subset?

NB: I definitely see a [growing] technical competency in the work. The level has definitely gone up, and there's more work. A lot of the films that we've seen have been from youth training programs, or other training programs, out in smaller communities, so that's creating more and more content. I definitely think there is a movement of indigenous people using media, film, video, to express themselves.

For Navajo stuff, what's interesting about that is that a lot of the people coming up, just on their own, got a camera, had an idea for a film, and went out and shot it. I think that's really cool, that these kids, growing up with so much media, TV...and now kids from a really young age are engaged in the Internet, so it is only natural that they should be taking part in making their own works; it's natural that Navajo should be making content for themselves and for the community. To me, it is totally like its own unique kind of cinema. There's just always people coming up and doing stuff, and a lot of time it's pertinent to a Navajo experience or where they come from in relation to their identity.

SO: The youth films are almost like punk music, they're just so raw and so fresh....It almost feels like [for] some of the younger filmmakers, the concept of telling my own story is, like, "Well, of course."

NB: I think that's a particular issue with indigenous people or people who have been oppressed, and their stories are known. [For example] Atom Egoyan, who's an Armenian Canadian filmmaker, was speaking about a film that he did about the issues around making a film about the genocide, and he was saying how his people have the desperate need to be heard. And it's the same way, I think, with indigenous people and our history, because we're so absent from the mainstream, from the history books; our point of view isn't really taught. I think a lot of the work that has come up so far has been, "Now we get a chance to tell our own story and what really happened, and we're going to educate the outside people."

But I think what's interesting about a lot of the Navajo work is that it's not really existing to educate an outside populous about what's going on in the Navajo Nation. Look at one of Shonie De La Rosa's short films about a corrupt Navajo politician—it is so for the community—or the younger people making music videos and things that would probably appeal to a wider audience, but it's not necessarily meant to be like, "This is me, and you need to recognize me and you need to hear my story,"; it's "I want to engage in this media and tell my story whatever it is." It could be something historical, something [they] have to express, or a comedy about whatever. So that's another component of this media making for people in our own communities.

SO: Right. I like the bravado of "I'm just gonna make a movie for my community and if you get it, that's great." Some of them are very much trying to educate, but others are very much, "This is just who I am and you can kind of take me...."

NB: Like Melissa Henry's Horse You See, there's a lot of that work—I'm thinking in terms of Navajo culture—because we have radio, which is pretty much entirely for Navajo community, or even our own stories, which date back to whenever—it's for our own communities, so it's the same now with film and video.

SO: Has participating as a selector for the festival shaped your opinions on the current state of Native cinema?

NB: I didn't get to see many Latin American works, I wish that I had seen more up to this point. It seems like there's more people making stuff, from even more remote areas; there's a lot from way up north, from different Inuit villages. Of course, some areas have been doing work a lot longer, and it is really interesting to see how they've progressed the quality of the work that is coming out of there.

SO: Is the bar being raised?

NB: I feel like we are looking for something beyond the ethnographic or educational type documentary, which I think has been phasing out for a while. It seems like there were more, even five years ago. Now films have more of a personal touch; more directors are developing who have a point of view, a style and something very specific they want to express in the way that they make the film. I see individual artists emerging.

SO: Who would you say is emerging now?

NB: Like I said, Shane Belcourt is great; I really respect his work.

SO: What about the film connects with you?

NB: Well, the female character in the film was talking about how she didn't know how to pray, and that her grandmother had gone through boarding school and was essentially scarred from that experience, so those traditions didn't really pass down. I had the same experience; my mother went to boarding school, so it is even that much more immediate. I see the damage that has caused, and I understand why she kind of pushed me and my siblings in the direction of more assimilation.

We're in the aftermath of that whole experience—I think a lot about when I'm an elder and when people and kids come to me and want some kind of wisdom or knowledge, what am I going to pass down? There is very little I feel like that I know, very little that I do know. So it's those questions of identity, and I know some people hate talking about that or acknowledging that it is an issue. It is very real for me—not that I don't know I am Navajo, and I am enrolled—but it is much more complex than that, I think.

SO: In most films, lost urban Natives go back to the reservation and they talk to an elder and they figure it all out in a summer, and then they are reborn as a sort of uber Native people. What I liked about Tkronto is that it conveys something like what you're saying, "I know I am Navajo." There is something inherent about just being Indian that you can trust, I think, when you are an elder. But [when you are younger] you don't know how to trust that because you don't feel like you have knowledge.

NB: And I think it has probably been that way for a really long time—but a lot has been lost in the recent past.... And not knowing how to speak my language, that is really an important thing. I want to go back and learn it so I will be able to pass it on, and just even understand how that knowledge affects how I view the world, how I think about things. It is true, [Navajo] is very, very—it's totally different from English.

SO: I try to explain to people that Navajos have a very sarcastic language; I always think it's a real, real caustic language.

NB: Yeah, it's hard to understand; a lot of the humor just doesn't translate.

SO: Do you find any connection to the male character in Tkronto?

NB: There's a part where he is talking about wanting to go to an Indian summer camp, like boot camp, where they would be able to go out and learn how to hunt and swim in a lake and be kind of wild.

SO: Yeah, maybe we can start that.

NB: Definitely, definitely.

En Español

Nanobah Becker

Directora Nanobah Becker (Navajo) fue elegida para Proyecto: Involve, del Film Independent de Los Angeles, una producción y programa de desarrollo profesional de 9-meses. En 2006 fue una de las 22 artistas de medios de comunición que ganó una beca Media Arts Fellowship de para producir su proyecto más nuevo, Full (título provisorio), una película de ficción sobre un hombre gay Navajo que retorna a la vida social gay de la noche en Albuquerque, despues de no trinfar como un disc jockey en Nueva York. Becker fue elegido para el Foro Indígena de Realizadores en el Festival Sundance 2005 para trabajar en el desarrollo del guión para un largometraje. Recibió su maestría en Cine de la Universidad Columbia, especializando en dirección. En 2004 fue pasante en el NMAI en el Centro de Cine y Video en Nueva York, y enseño un curso de verano en producción del cine narrativo para alumnos indígenas americanos de nivel secundario en el estado de Nuevo México. Becker nació y creció en Albuquerque, Nuevo México y recibió su licenciatira en Antropología en la Universidad Brown. Pasó a varios años trabajando con jóvenes indígenas, en la Nación Navajo y en Albuquerque en el Instituto Polytécnico Indio del Suroeste, antes de decidirse a ser realizadora. Viva y trabaja ahora en Los Angeles, California.

marzo 2009


"Siempre me ha facinado el cine. Reconociendo la falta de imágenes que reflejen la experienca de la juventud indígena, decidí que había mucho campo por explorar para mí en el cine. Así empecé. Lo que me mantiene intrigada es lo elusivo que es. El cine es un arte que no se agota, eso es lo que aprendo con cada proyecto nuevo, can cada idea."

Film & Video Center, NMAI–NY
National Museum of the American Indian 
Smithsonian Institution 
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