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Chloe Zhao on ‘Lee,’ a Modern Tale of Native American Teen Life

Chloé Zhao

Chloé Zhao is a New York–based independent filmmaker from Beijing, China, and an alum of the 2012 Screenwriters and Directors Labs.

I was very fortunate to participate at the Sundance Institute January Screenwriters Lab in 2012 with my screenplay Lee, a modern story about three Lakota teens who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Their story is in the here and now and captures not only the challenges in their lives but also the unique humor, tremendous beauty, and the great sense of family that runs strong throughout the Lakota community.

My experience at the lab was a very emotional process for me. My advisors encouraged me to delve into the depths of my psyche to fully explore what this story meant to me at the most personal level. Their advice gave me the strength and insight to craft the story I am so proud to share with the world today.

When it was time to prepare for the Sundance Institute Directors Lab later that year, I went back to Pine Ridge to search for my protagonist, Lee, in hopes of finding the star of my film from within the community. The search for him was an endless journey that included countless visits to schools and community centers, scouring across Pine Ridge to find the needle in the haystack. Until one day, while perusing the Little Wound High School yearbook, I saw a photo of John Reddy.

John was 17, one of 25 children of an ex-rodeo star. He had certainly never thought about acting before, and like many teenage boys his age, it took me a while to gain his trust before he agreed to join me at the Directors Lab. Two weeks before he left the reservation for the first time ever, John’s best friend committed suicide. It was a very difficult time for John, but he showed tremendous strength and courage during the Directors Lab.

During one of the scenes we workshopped, he allowed himself to go to a dark and personal place and become vulnerable in front of all of us. The result was an extraordinarily powerful and beautifully moving scene. Although John still was unsure he was ready to become an actor, he felt his late best friend would have wanted him to continue on this journey and make everyone proud by representing the best of Pine Ridge.

Our film would not be where it is at today without all the tremendous support we have received these past three years. Yet despite this support, financing an independent film about modern day Native Americans with no major stars and a first time writer/director has proved challenging. We are trying to tell a story that the mainstream media in this country has chosen largely to overlook, but we are extremely confident in our choice to shoot the film on Pine Ridge with nonprofessional actors who are born and raised here.

Authenticity is pivotal and these choices allow us to share with the world a point of view rarely seen in media today. Our vision and passion have attracted many talented and creative people to join us on this adventure, including the acclaimed cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights) and the very esteemed Native American actor Irene Bedard (Lakota Woman, Tree of Life, Pocahontas).

We decided to launch our Kickstarter campaign to not only help fundraise for our production budget, but also to give the world a taste of the beauty, history and humanity that flows from Pine Ridge. We are excited to share just a few of the people of Pine Ridge that have so passionately inspired me to make this film. With every click of our video, we are one step closer to achieving our goal of bringing a greater awareness to this proud community.

For me, Lee has evolved to be much more than just making a film. Just as much as the Pine Ridge community has graciously opened their arms to me entrusted me with their stories, it is also vitally important to me to help build lasting opportunities to help the young men and women in the community. We are establishing a formal internship program for select teens to participate during the production of the film and we plan to establish a summer film workshop in conjunction with the local schools to help nurture the next generation of storytellers.

But our work will not be possible without a successful Kickstarter campaign, and I hope by sharing part of my journey with you, I have inspired you to find out more about Pine Ridge and our film Lee.

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A man in a beige shirt and with medium-length dark hair kneels in the dirt and looks over his right shoulder at the camera

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