TULSA — “I’m focused on contemporary Native American stories, the modern-day ups and downs of that lifestyle, but I’m not trying to do it in a traditional manner,” said filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “I’m more interested in the people who are on the threads of our society — you know, artists, drug dealers, former drug pushers, medicine people — people you don’t really see in the Native spotlight.”
That non-traditional approach has helped bring significant attention to Lowe, who is from the Navajo Nation, as a 2012 Sundance Institute Native Producing Fellow, a recipient of a Re:New Media Award, and an alum of the Sundance Institute’s NativeLab, Producers Lab, and Screenwriters Writers Lab. He also directed two episodes in the first season of the groundbreaking FX series Reservation Dogs from co-creators and executive producers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, and is now working on the second season.
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In addition, Lowe is in his fourth year of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, established by the George Kaiser Family Foundation in 2015, which welcomes “socially invested arts practitioners to live and work” in a city that is “distinctly positioned at the center of coastal cultural conversations,” as described on the program’s website. The fellowship has quickly become a revered support structure and dynamic platform for both established and emerging artists.
Lowe’s path to recognition includes a string of awards including Best Cinematography prize at the Terres en Vues/Land InSights Montreal First Peoples Festival in 2016 for Chasing the Light. The film, which has screened at domestic and international film festivals such as imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, Skabmagovat Film Festival, and the Maoriland Film Festival, follows main character Riggs (Lowe) as he fails to write a script, his friends interrupt his suicide attempts, and drug deals go awry, each scene tinged with melancholy and heartbreak over his ex-girlfriend. The film is a stripped-down, black-and-white, day-in-the-life Jarmuschian-type narrative about relationships, depression, and the powerful forces of addiction, whether to substances or emotions.
Shimásáni, a short film that Lowe wrote and directed, is a 1930s period piece based on his grandmother, her upbringing, and her desire to go to boarding school. Lowe explains, “I wanted to tap into my roots, and then into my family’s roots, and to think more about Navajo experiences from that time.” The film earned him the New Mexico New Visions Contract Award and Panavision Award. It premiered at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival and screened at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, as well as other festivals around the world, picking up multiple awards and accolades along the way. “Still to this day, Shimásáni is probably one of my strongest films and continually brings work my way,” he said.
Lowe’s filmic style and aesthetic choices are broad. He responds to the story begging to be told rather than operating with any preconceived notions about the genre or medium.
“Sometimes my inspiration comes from characters, sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s just something somebody tells me, and then my brain will blossom with all these new ideas to attach to it. So I never know exactly where it’s gonna come from. But when I’m able to catch it, I just try to put it all on paper, then hopefully put it on screen later,” he explains.
Lowe’s feature directorial debut, 5th World, which premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, highlights his interest in matching characters, settings, and feelings. Long camera shots show Andrei (Sheldon Silentwalker) and Aria (Livandrea Knoki), seemingly inseparable from the Navajo reservation landscape they traverse, as they experience the disruption and fallout that can come with falling in love too quickly, scored with songs by Corey Allison, Ecliptic Gruv, and others.
According to Lowe, “When I did 5th World — which ended up becoming a road story about two kids falling in love and hitchhiking through Arizona and New Mexico — a lot of the music I was listening to at the time had a specific sound and feeling. So I wanted to find that feeling and make it into a feature film.”
During his time living and working in Albuquerque, Lowe was busy with the Sundance Native initiative, mentoring, and helping other people develop their work and their voice. Yet, he states, “Once I saw that the Tulsa Artist Fellowship was very much on board with me focusing on my own practice, and really developing my own artistic voice … I thought it’d be perfect time to really focus on getting my stories told and getting my vision up on the screen.”
Lowe discovered the Tulsa Artist Fellowship through friends and collaborators, including Harjo and Nathan Young, who now works for the organization as the public programs producer. The fellowship awards a $25,000 stipend and $10,000 in project resources, as well as free accommodation and studio space, plus additional forms of support, to designated fellows. As for the geographic relevance? “The state of Oklahoma is home to 39 tribal Nations and the city of Tulsa is deeply shaped by its rich Native American cultural landscape,” Young told Hyperallergic. “Tulsa Artist Fellowship is dedicated to celebrating and supporting Native arts.”
Lowe finished his most recent film, Fukry, in Tulsa, and he also received an Arts Integration Award alongside Atomic Culture for his continued work with the local community in the form of Cinetelechy Lab, an intergenerational storytelling mentorship. Although COVID interrupted previous plans, this year the Lab aims to do a full-blown media festival.
Lowe says he’s always been interested in film, for which he (lovingly) blames his parents. His mom showed him The Godfather earlier on, and his father was a huge fan of Spaghetti Westerns. Lowe remembers watching those films, along with Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian with his grandfather, as well as sci-fi films like Escape from New York with his uncle, while other relatives showed him “weird Italian horror films.” And he has a memory of his dad mistakenly renting Eraserhead. “It blew my mind — freaked me out but definitely drew my interest,” he notes.
When his mom wasn’t using her collection of 35-millimeter and early VHS cameras for documenting family get-togethers, Lowe and his brother and sister would recreate scenes from the likes of The Road Warrior, Star Wars, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Growing up on a big farm, they didn’t have many friends nearby, so they created their own little worlds by making short films. His interest grew from there and, after studying painting, photography, and creative writing, he put all his focus into filmmaking at Scottsdale Community College, the most affordable film school he could find.
“All of my themes kind of come from my earliest teachings and understandings of story, which come from the Navajo creation story. So I try to apply it to what’s going on now but with a more modern, darker sensibility,” he said. “I’m always more interested in the people who have to go through the spiritual struggles, just trying to find a way out of darker places and into the light.”