Vision & Voice: Navajo Filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe on Making His ‘Own Weird Kind of Cinematic Mutant’

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Navajo Nation filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe's 2019 film 'Fukry.'

November is Native American Heritage Month, and to celebrate, the Sundance Institute is running a weekly series, Vision & Voice: Indigenous Cinema Now, profiling artists who have been supported by the Indigenous Program throughout its history. To begin the series, the Indigenous Program’s associate director, Adam Piron, spoke with Blackhorse Lowe, a filmmaker from the Navajo Nation, whose debut feature, 5th World, premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and went on to screen at festivals around the globe.

“I want to show people something they haven’t seen before and give them an experience of something they haven’t tried—it’s like a trip or like going to a ceremony or hanging out with some weirdos,” he says of his filmography, which has grown to include award-winning projects like Shimásáni (2009), Chasing the Light (2016), and Fukry (2019). Below, Lowe—who is currently busy writing his next feature—talks about his Navajo upbringing, the films that helped shape his own cinematic language, and why he’s drawn to stories that center around spiritual darkness.


A still from Blackhorse Lowe's 2019 screwball stoner rom-com 'Fukry.'

ADAM PIRON: Can you talk about how your upbringing and how it affected your cinematic voice?

BLACKHORSE LOWE: I grew up on a farm outside this [New Mexico] town called Farmington on the Navajo Reservation. My mom was a teacher whose focus was on a Navajo language curriculum. She had lots of books about creation stories, Navajo history, Navajo thought, and the cosmology of the Navajo world. My dad worked as a mechanic at a coal mine and he also ran peyote meetings. So I spent a lot of time going to ceremonies and learning about my culture. I heard stories, traditional stories and family stories.

Both my parents along with my extended family were huge cinephiles; I remember my dad watching a lot of Sergio Leone movies, a lot of westerns, like The Wild Bunch. My mom was really into The Godfather and Francis Ford Coppola movies. We’d rent whatever. Movies were a thing when we weren’t at ceremonies or working on the farm. My brother and sister watched a lot of stuff like Mad Max, The Road Warrior, Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man, and that really formed my brain and appreciation for film. So it was a huge combination of Navajo traditional ceremonies, creation stories, heavy metal music, punk music, all these crazy genre films that really formed my film language.

AP: Your films are really unique, in the sense that they’re very much tied to maybe not necessarily just the Navajo Nation but specifically the Southwest. When I think of your films, I think of specifically the visuals of the region that you use and thematically how you link them to a recurring idea of people on the edge of some type of spiritual darkness.

BL: The harshness of the landscape really spoke a lot to me because that’s what my surroundings were. Those creation stories came out of that landscape; that’s why I found those movies to connect with earlier on, but also those movies also to a certain degree talked [about] characters [who] were going through these dark moments … to be tested physically, mentally, and spiritually, and led down this road of trying to find redemption or some sort of reconciliation with themselves because of all the darkness and all the harshness the world threw on them.

I think that’s why a lot of my films deal with that, because a lot of my upbringing was based around that—not that I had to go search that spiritual darkness, but the people my family were helping were going through that struggle. So my movies always kind of speak to that from early on, but also for my own growth and seeing what my friends and family go through the spiritual struggle is always the thing that’s a constant, it seems, and the one thing that always intrigues me.

How do you deal with the world and the physical realities, but how do you weave your way through it? How do you take on the darkness and find your way back to the light, but also how do you learn from it—how do you grow from it and how do you make yourself stronger from it, and be at peace with it and keep going forward?

A still from 2009's 'Shimásáni.'

AP: I think one of the main themes in your films is always these characters that are walking various distances between this line of choosing between the sacred and the profane. I think you see that with something like 5th World with the finale. But, then you have Shimásáni, Chasing the Light, or even Fukry, where these characters who do make these choices end up kind of wanting to sit on that line. You do that with Shimásáni or Chasing the Light with your use of color, specifically black and white. That seems to be a choice, but I’m wondering too if maybe there’s something else that you see in maybe how you explore these themes in terms of the cinematic language that you use?

BL: I wanted to call back to films that influenced me that I was trying to emulate their style. With Shimásáni, that was more speaking to Kurosawa and the way he was able to express all the emotions through the visuals and through the choice of black and white. Chasing the Light was kind of just drawn off of stuff like Down by Law or Stranger than Paradise and especially Bresson, too, in terms of what black and white really did and really how it drew a certain emotion out of you.

When I come into color with like something like Fukry or 5th World where it’s like, if I had to strip away all the sound, at least the visuals would be strong enough to where you could appreciate it like a moving painting and get the visual information and the emotions that those images were giving you, especially the strong use of color. All those choices are purely an emotional one and also just me just trying to steal from those directors what they had already set in their films to piece it together and make my own weird kind of cinematic mutant.

AP: In evoking these emotions, is there a general theme that you feel you’ve been trying to get to?

BL: I think love is one that definitely comes across. It was my thing to kind of do a weird trilogy of love with 5th World, Chasing the Light, and Fukry.

5th World [is about] love in the present day—the older generation and the younger generation and how they dealt with love. The older generation, they met each other's families, they asked each other’s clans, they really went about it in a very slow, deliberate way. It wasn’t about just about two people combining, it was about families combining, it was about spiritual beliefs combining, it was the joining of land and all these other elements coming together to make a new family, a new resource. Whereas the younger people are kind of just going off of lust and a surface feeling of love and affection. Those two approaches to love are both completely opposite to one another, and you see the trouble the younger kids get in from that, so it’s just like you see how love and those terms it affects them, and how it’s different from each place and how much you learn from it, how much you grow from it, and how much it can also fuck you up if you don’t approach it properly.

And then with Chasing the Light, the theme of love comes in with the character I play of Riggs, who is someone who thought he had the love of his life, and then [we] see him falling apart and falling into this depression after a break up. In order for him to regain himself, he had to go out on this dark journey and realize he’s loved by other people; he’s loved by his friends, and he’s loved by these other people that surround him. It’s not so much just about man and woman, but also your friends and family who surround you and kind of build you back up. You have the psychedelic portion of it, too, where it’s a reference to peyote and using what the earth gives you in order to break yourself out of your shell and realign yourself and your mind and your spirit.

Then with Fukry, that was about falling in love and having it all fall apart and then just trying to put yourself back together. But also the ridiculousness of that emotion.

'5th World' premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

AP: Another thing that’s a big thread throughout all your films, even your documentaries, your shorts, and your features, is the music you use. I think in some ways they’re kind of almost a document of the sound of the Southwest, in particular the bands and a lot of the music that comes out of there.

BL: Oh yeah, most definitely. Using Tenderizor, using a lot of noise music from people who have gone through Albuquerque, people like Nathan Young, punk bands like Weedrat, it’s very much the sound of those environments and the sound of those bands that come out of those places that really affect the visuals and my experience with them too. Whether it’s a combo of metal, punk, or noise, those sounds are what drive the images. They’re always there for me to feed off of and help me form the film and form the emotion too.

AP: Where do you see your body of work going from here?

BL: I just really want to get going on my next feature film. I would love to take this next step up in terms of just having more access to money, more access to more crew members, and better production value. You know, DIY is fun, because I don't really have to kiss a lot of ass and ask a lot of people for help. I just come up with an idea, I write the thing down, and go execute and make the movie.

But hopefully with this next level, with these next ideas that I have, I want to make these next films where the bar is a little higher, the budgets are bigger, and the resources are higher. I want to get to that level and hope to continue on that level, and not have to go back. I want to go forward, have that accessibility to more money and more people, but also a bigger audience, too, so those people can appreciate it and see something completely different and new.

AP: What do you want audiences to take away from seeing a Blackhorse Lowe film?

BL: When I show my films to certain people who know me, they always say it feels like I’m just hanging out with you for two hours. “You’re just either torturing me with really weird music, or it feels like I'm smoking a joint with you or taking a road trip.” I want to show people something they haven’t seen before and give them an experience of something they haven’t tried—it’s like a trip or like going to a ceremony or hanging out with some weirdos. I want to take people on a journey through a place that I think is cool.


MORE ABOUT BLACKHORSE LOWE

Blackhorse Lowe received the New Mexico New Visions Contract Award and Panavision Award for a short film he wrote and directed titled Shimásáni. The film premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and went on to screen at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, as well as other festivals around the world, garnering many awards and accolades along the way. A recipient of a Re:New Media Award, Lowe is an alumni of the Sundance Institute’s NativeLab, Producers Lab, and Screenwriters Writers Lab. Currently he is writing his next feature, curating films with Atomic Culture for CINETELECHY a drive in series focused on cutting edge indigenous films, and also curating short films for a traveling film series called CineDOOM. He is also a fellow at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship.


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Lead photo:

Navajo Nation filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe's 2019 film 'Fukry.'