Shiprock native finishes film on Navajo rug

Mike Easterling
Filmmaker Dwayne Joe stands for a portrait on Dec. 24 outside the Farmington Civic Center after graduating from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and completing work on his documentary film 'Big Sister Rug.'

FARMINGTON – Shiprock native Dwayne Joe moved back home last week after earning his diploma from the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe earlier this month. He has several job opportunities awaiting him, including an offer to join the production team of at a new studio being established by Native actor Adam Beach (“Flags of Our Fathers) in Santa Fe or Glorieta.

It’s an exciting time in his life. He graduated from IAIA with a 4.0 GPA and talks of someday working in a broadcast studio in Albuquerque before establishing a media education organization back in his hometown, where he hopes to teach other Navajo young people some of the things he’s learned about filmmaking.

But the biggest thing he’s got going in his life right now is his just-finished documentary film “Big Sister Rug,” which relates the story of Big Sister, the enormous rug created in the late 1970s by a team of 11 Navajo weavers from the Chilchinbeto Chapter in Arizona. The film was part of Joe’s IAIA senior thesis, and his first, and only, screening of the film took place in Santa Fe on Dec. 3.

Awaiting the audience’s response to the project, which had consumed so much of his life over the past year, was an anxiety-inducing experience for Joe.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Joe said. “But I knew I just wanted to move the audience, whether it was with humor or emotion.”

Filmmaker Dwayne Joe poses with the box where the Big Sister rug is stored at the Chilchinbeto Chapter in Arizona.

By the time the film ended and the lights came up, Joe — who is enrolled in the Navajo Nation but who is also part Hopi — knew his film had found its mark. He noted with relief that people laughed in the right places and seemed genuinely moved during other sequences as he brought the tale of the largest Navajo rug in existence — 24 feet, 5 inches by 37 feet, 10 inches — to life.

The cut of the film that Joe screened that night was only 15 minutes, much shorter than the 45 minutes he first planned. The abbreviated version was created to meet the requirements of his thesis, he said, but that apparently didn’t stop the 50 or so people in the audience that night from enjoying it. Joe said many of them approached him afterward and told him it was so good, they had forgotten they were watching a student film.

“It was amazing,” he said.

Now Joe has to figure out what to do next with “x.” He plans on submitting a longer version of the documentary, 22 minutes, to a number of film festivals and is hoping he receives the same positive response he got from the IAIA crowd.

He said IAIA will serve as one of the venues for the ninth annual Taos Shortz Film Festival in April, and he hopes to screen the film there as part of that event. He’s also had conversations with officials from New Mexico’s PBS affiliate about airing the documentary on statewide television and would like to see the film screened at the annual Santa Fe Indian Market in August.

But his real goal is to get the film accepted for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, which would provide enormous exposure. He said organizers of major film festivals such as Sundance like to offer world-premiere screenings of new films, so Joe is keeping his documentary under wraps until he hears back from Sundance officials or some of the other large festivals he has applied to.

Navajo weaver Helen Charley is featured in this still from the documentary film 'Big Sister Rug.'

Joe is willing to be patient, but only to a degree. He’s excited about scheduling a screening of “Big Sister Rug” in Shiprock or Chilchinbeto or both because he wants people to understand how important it is that Big Sister — which is stored in a wooden box in Chilchinbeto — be properly preserved and displayed.

“It needs to be housed properly,” he said. “If you go there to see it, all you’re going to see is a box. My film is a call-to-action film.”

He also wants the surviving members of the team that created Big Sister — only three of those weavers remain alive — to get the credit they deserve for their effort.

As reported by The Daily Times on May 8, Joe initially hoped to raise more than $30,000 to cover the costs of making the film with an online fundraising campaign. But that effort fell short. Ultimately, he said, he generated enough donations to cover his travel costs, and he credited Michael Billie of Capacity Builders Inc. and the N.A.T.I.V.E. Project with supplying him with a grant and the kind of encouragement that enabled him to complete the film. He also said he wished to thank everyone who donated to his GoFundMe account that was established to cover the costs of the production.

This still from the documentary 'Big Sister Rug' by Dwayne Joe features an interview with weaver Joan Singer.

Joe said he spent three months planning the film before he shot it, as well as two and a half months editing it.

“The hardest challenge was subtitling the Navajo (dialog) to English,” he said, explaining that the assistance supplied to him by English teacher Eugene Badonie was invaluable. Badonie is also the man who suggested to Joe in November 2014 that he make a documentary about the rug.

During the IAIA screening earlier this month, Joe said one audience member asked him why he didn’t simply replace the Navajo dialog with English voice-overs.

“I said, ‘That’s kind of like taking away our language. It’s already endangered, because a lot of our youth are not using it.’”

Joe views Big Sister — which he first saw when it served as a backdrop for an appearance by then-President Bill Clinton in Shiprock in 2000 — as an important symbol of Navajo culture, pride and independence, and said he’s pleased with the way his film came out. He’s eager to expose it to a larger audience, and he hopes it’s not too long before he hears back from film festival organizers so he can make a firm plan for screening it.

This courtesy image features a sign promoting Big Sister, the world's largest Navajo rug that is the subject of a recently completed documentary by Shiprock native Dwayne Joe.

“I’ve just got to figure out which route to go,” he said.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.