A film on Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller bucks biopic formula and concentrates on a pivotal moment in the leader's life.
Tim Kelly is on the phone tonight from Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and there’s a hint of fatigue in his voice. It was a long day on the set of The Cherokee Word for Water, a fact-based drama inspired by the first female Cherokee chief, Wilma Mankiller. Kelly is directing a cast of 30 and a crew of 75 who signed on for a SAG low-budget film that aims to honor one person’s spirit by transcending the conventions of the standard biopic.
“Wilma is certainly a great American hero, and she’s a personal hero of mine, but the story is not a typical hero’s journey [of someone] who goes through a personal transformation,” Kelly emphasizes.
A self-described “white guy who grew up in Vermont and New Hampshire,” Kelly heard about Mankiller from a mutual friend, Kristina Kiehl of Hillsborough, Wilma’s longtime supporter and advisor and a producer of the film. When Kelly chose to get involved four and a half years ago, The Cherokee Word for Water was a biographical project encompassing Mankiller’s life with an emphasis on her tenure as chief.
Kelly made the pivotal decision to focus on Mankiller’s campaign to provide running water for the tribe in the early 1980s. “I don’t think I could tell Wilma’s story without telling the story of the people she empowered,” he says.
With organizer Charlie Soap (who later became her husband) and a cadre of volunteers, Mankiller oversaw the construction of a 16-mile water system. Its success ultimately led to her appointment as chief in 1985.
“This community that a lot of people had low regard for, and were poor and not particularly well educated, built a water line through very rough country,” explains Perry Pickert, Kelly’s partner in the San Francisco-based production company Friday’s Films and a producer of The Cherokee Word for Water. “It was a beginning [that] extended beyond the water line to [building] schools and community centers.”
Kelly believed the screenplay needed to include and acknowledge Wilma, Charlie and the community. Mankiller’s goal “was not just to bring water but to empower the community to where they didn’t need Wilma or Charlie to be involved—to turn over the decisions and management of the project,” Kelly says. “None would have become who they are without the others’ involvement. It’s an important story for tribal communities around the world, and non-tribal people like myself.”
Perry and Tim were college friends who started out making documentaries a decade ago. Hanging in the Balance: The Future of Fishing in the Bahamas jettisoned the cliched British narrator of many underwater environmental films in favor of commentary from local fishermen.
The duo enjoyed a three-year run that included projects about Fiji and the Virgin Islands before they ran out of money. They were approached to do commercial and industrial work, which became the company’s bread and butter.
Then Kelly met Kiehl and Mankiller, and decided to take six months off to work on the script. Pickert got involved in fundraising, a difficult assignment for an independent film without name actors. Nor was Wilma well known, despite a popular 1993 autobiography, Mankiller: A Chief and her People. Paradoxically, her death last year broke the logjam.
“Wilma’s passing pushed the project forward,” Pickert relates. “People who’d been on the fence realized how important it was to get her story out there. But she adamantly did not want the film to be Wilma Mankiller. She wanted it to be about the Cherokee community, and their power, resilience and ingenuity that made the project come together.”
The filmmakers recently received a $75,000 SFFS/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grant while they were putting together the cast and crew in Los Angeles and Oklahoma. The L.A. crew is headed by executive producer Paul Heller, line producer Ashley Friedman and cinematographer Lisa Leon. The Cherokee Word for Water wraps next weekend, after four six-day weeks in production. The film will be edited at the Presidio offices of Friday’s Films.
Notes from the Underground
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