Teen Angst Typically Includes Conflict Between Past and Future—But What If the Past Is the Reservation and the Future a World Apart?
Thomas and Tamara are track stars at their rural New Mexico high school. Like many teenagers, they are torn between the lure of brighter futures elsewhere and the ties that bind them to home. For these teens, however, home is an impoverished town on the Navajo reservation, and leaving means separating from family, tradition and the land that has been theirs for generations. Erica Scharf’s Up Heartbreak Hill is a moving look at a new generation of Americans struggling to be both Native and modern.
Up Heartbreak Hill has its national broadcast premiere during the 25th anniversary season of PBS' POV series on Thursday, July 26, 2012 at 10 p.m. (Check local listings.) The film will be available for sneak previews on the PBS video apps for iPad and iPhone starting July 20 and will also stream on POV's website July 27-Aug. 26.
The hopes and heartbreaks of senior year of high school comprise a defining part of teenage life in America. Graduation marks the end of childhood, partings from family, friends and community and the start of a future that is exciting and scary. But for Thomas Martinez, a statewide high school cross-country and track star, and Tamara Hardy, an academic and athletic star, growing up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico has heightened these tensions in ways particular to Native American history and contemporary reservation life. Up Heartbreak Hill is a chronicle of one fateful year in their lives.
At 27,000 square miles and with a population of about 300,000, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, covering parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The land is beautiful and harsh, with few resources to support economic development or the preservation of traditional Navajo culture, and with little economic incentive for ambitious young people to stay. In Navajo, N.M., only 30% of kids graduate from high school. Thomas’ ambition is “to go to college, come back here and make a difference for my nation.”
Thomas has a rebellious streak, signaled by his brightly colored Mohawk haircut, which makes him easy to spot as he circles the track. Dedicated and driven, he likes to test himself against “Heartbreak Hill,” the infamous ascending pass on the local cross-country course, and hopes to win a state title and a college scholarship. Yet Thomas cannot quite free himself from the mesh of a broken family.
Tamara, too, is a runner and she is also senior class president and a top contender for valedictorian, completing an impressive course load that includes the Navajo language and advanced placement calculus. She is upbeat, charismatic and popular. Her family is happy and stable, and her parents supportive of her ambitions to pursue an engineering degree. Yet even she expresses deep ambivalence about seeking education off the reservation and, given her career prospects, of moving away for good.
What Thomas calls his love of “the mountains, the trees and the thought of being free” speaks eloquently to the spiritual attachment these youths have to their land and to the traditional Navajo way of life. Up Heartbreak Hill is a poignant account of how these two teenagers come of age.
"I hope this film will help forge a greater understanding of a rarely glimpsed American community—a nation within a nation—whose current history, tribulations and triumphs are widely ignored," says director Erica Scharf. “Thomas and Tamara’s decisions are dominated by the push-pull of a place whose very earth they have been connected to for hundreds of years but whose socio-economic realities make attaining even basic standards so challenging. They are not always victims and they are not always heroes, although they have had to deal with more adversity in their 18 years than many others have. In essence, they are teenagers—and their story is, in many ways, a universal one.”
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Erica Scharf (Director, Producer, Cinematographer)
Erica Scharf has spent much of her career in documentary film and television. She is currently a producer for HGTV’s popular series House Hunters International. She has also worked as an editor on the documentary program The Shift (Investigation Discovery). In 2008, she spent six months on location in Dallas, shooting and producing A&E’s documentary television series The First 48. She has also edited several episodes of The First 48.
Scharf began her career as an associate producer for Worlds Apart (NGC), a vérité travel and culture program. She directed and edited Marnee: A Garage Sale Retrospective, which won first place at Movie Making Madness 2005, and edited City, which won Best Short Film at the 2007 Aspen Shortsfest. Other credits include Dual Survival (Discovery), Celebrity Ghost Stories (Biography) and SWAT (A&E). In 2005, she was the assistant editor on God Grew Tired of Us, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Documentary at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. She is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she received a bachelor of fine arts degree in film and television.
Director/Producer: Erica Scharf
Producer: Christina D. King
Executive Producer: Chris Eyre
Co-producer: Sara Alize Cross
Cinematographer: Erica Scharf
Editors: Cindy Lee, Isaac Wayton, Megan Brennan, Janine Feczko
Original Music: Sasha Gordon
Running Time: 56:46
Up Heartbreak Hill is a co-production of Long Distance Films, Native American Public Telecommunications (NAPT), ITVS, POV’s Diverse Voices Project and New Mexico PBS, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). It is a co-presentation with NAPT and part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a national public media initiative made possible by CPB to identify and implement solutions to the dropout crisis.
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producer: Simon Kilmurry
Co-Executive Producer: Cynthia López
Vice President, Production and Programming: Chris White
Series Producer: Yance Ford
Coordinating Producer: Andrew Catauro
· Official Selection, Cleveland International Film Festival, 2012
· Official Selection, Arizona International Film Festival, 2012
· Official Selection, Cine Las Americas International Film Festival, 2012
· Official Selection, Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, 2012
· Official Selection, Atlanta Film Festival, 2012
· Official Selection, Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 2012
· Official Selection, imagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, 2011
· Official Selection, American Indian Film Festival, 2011
· Official Selection, VisionMaker Film Festival, 2011
Produced by American Documentary, Inc. and celebrating its 25th anniversary on PBS in 2012, the award-winning POV is the longest-running showcase on American television to feature the work of today’s best independent documentary filmmakers. POV has brought more than 325 acclaimed documentaries to millions nationwide and has a Webby Award-winning online series, POV’s Borders. Since 1988, POV has pioneered the art of presentation and outreach using independent nonfiction media to build new communities in conversation about today’s most pressing social issues. Visit www.pbs.org/pov.
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the desJardins/Blachman Fund and public television viewers. Funding for POV's Diverse Voices Project is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Special support provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.