Filmmaking a family affair for Navajo siblings
Kody, Kolette and Kolin Dayish have teamed up to produce two films, the first of which already has attracted a good deal of attention
- The Dayish siblings from Shiprock put together their own production company in 2010.
- Kody Dayish recently earned the Emerging First Time Director award at the Red Nation Film Festival.
- The family's next project is a horror film called "The Red Hogan" that is in post-production.
- Both films were shot on the Navajo Nation and feature mostly Navajo actors and crew members.
FARMINGTON — There are big-budget films, there are low-budget films and then there are the kind that that Kody Dayish made for his directorial debut — what he laughingly calls “a no-budget film.”
The 28-year-old Dayish, a 2006 Shiprock High School graduate who had done a good deal of acting and modeling as a youngster, was close to finishing his studies in the San Juan College School of Energy’s industrial processing operator program last year when he decided to take another stab at the film industry — this time from behind a camera instead of in front of it.
“I see a lot of Native American films that say they’re Native American films,” he said. “But they’re not directed by a Native, and they’re not starring real Native actors.”
Using his dissatisfaction with that situation as his motivation, Dayish made his first film – a 12-minute short called “The Beginning” — under the auspices of the production company he started in 2010 with his siblings, Kolette and Kolin. The film, which is built around a song but also features a story, was an immediate success in Dayish’s eyes because it features an all-Navajo cast and crew.
Since its release, the film has succeeded in other, more traditional ways. When Dayish finished the film, he said he had no idea what to do with it, other than a vague notion about uploading it to his Facebook page and seeing what kind of response it generated. But before he did that, he submitted it to the annual Roswell Film Festival. To his delight, “The Beginning” was accepted and screened at the festival, which was held May 18-21 this year in the southwest New Mexico community.
From there, the film continued to gain traction. It was screened during the Santa Fe Indian Market in August as part of the Red Nation Film Festival’s On the Road series, then was shown at the Red Nation Film Festival in Los Angeles in November.
It was during the latter that Dayish received his biggest surprise. At the awards ceremony on Nov. 21, he found himself being called to the stage to accept the award for best Emerging First Time Director.
“It was crazy,” Dayish said, recalling his reaction. “There were some big-time actors and directors there.”
The film is built largely around the song “Generation Hand Down” from the 1996 album “Etsi Shon” by Canadian artist Jerry Alfred, a member of the Northern Tutchone Nation in the Yukon Territory. The album won the Juno award — the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys — that year for Aboriginal Recording of the Year, and Dayish had become familiar with the song in 2001 when he was shooting his role as Young Cheekie in the film “The Doe Boy” and the tune was used in the opening sequence.
Dayish licensed the song from Red House Records, the St. Paul, Minn.-based indie label that had released it, then crafted a script that focused on the characters Mother Earth and Father Sky, and the four directions. The film was shot at various locations on the Navajo Nation, including Monument Valley and the Shiprock pinnacle, and scenes of everyday life on the rez are depicted throughout.
Those settings have served as the background for plenty of other films, but Dayish believed he could do a better job of capturing their majesty than other filmmakers. He also had a strong desire to depict Navajo culture in a faithful fashion.
“We were confident enough to know our story would be unique,” he said. “We were going based on what we were taught through our Navajo culture.”
Convincing his sister and brother to go along with his idea wasn’t easy at first, Dayish acknowledged. The aspiring filmmaker only came up with the idea for the project after breaking his neck in an accident — he declined to discuss the circumstances further — and winding up in a neck halo brace and wheelchair for six months. He used that time when he essentially was immobilized to study the film industry and came to the conclusion that he could make better films than many other directors he observed.
Kody presented the idea to his sister Kolette and brother Kolin, eventually convincing them to join him in the venture. Kolette, now 24, had graduated in 2015 from Fort Lewis College with a degree in chemistry and had been planning on taking a year off before seeking her master’s degree. But, after her brother's injury, she helped care for him. Kolin was still completing his education at Shiprock High School.
It wasn’t long before they came to their first significant hurdle, which was deciding how to finance their film. They had no money, but since they all were working for free — Kody as director, screenwriter and editor, Kolette as production manager and actor, and Kolin as assistant director and actor — they were able to keep costs to a minimum. Their primary investment came in the form of a camera, purchased only after the siblings set up a side business — selling breakfast burritos to hungry early risers on the streets of Shiprock — to raise the funds they needed.
The two younger Dayishes were not entirely unfamiliar with the film industry themselves, as they had appeared as extras in several films at the urging of their brother. Kolette, in fact, had landed spots in two recent high-profile films, “The Avengers” and “A Million Ways to Die in the West.” During the former, she even had the chance to meet one of the film’s stars, Scarlett Johansson.
The siblings spent two months driving to different locations around the Navajo Nation, shooting the occasional choreographed scene, such as a sequence at Monument Valley that featured Kolette as part of a basket dancing group. But they mostly captured footage of regular Navajo people going about their normal lives.
If they encountered an issue, they simply worked out the best solution they could find, improvising and employing their diverse collection of skills along the way. Kolette, for example, is a welder, and she built a camera jib crane — an apparatus that allows the camera, which is mounted at one end, to be moved in various directions while remaining steady.
Staying on schedule proved to be the biggest challenge, they said, explaining that a scene that they thought could be shot in two hours often took four or six. So learning to work efficiently became a priority.
When it was over, Kody edited the material down to 12 minutes, adding the titles and credits. The first film from Kody Dayish Productions had become a reality.
Buoyed by the success of that project, the siblings are already well on their way toward releasing their second film, a full-length feature called “The Red Hogan.” They wrapped shooting of the two-hour feature in July, and the film is in post-production now. Kody plans on submitting it to the larger film festivals and hopes to have it accepted to Tribeca in 2017 or Sundance in 2018, which means it likely won’t see a general release until the middle of 2018.
“Kody always wanted to do a horror film,” Kolette said. “He was always into Wes Craven.”
The film is based on tales the Dayish kids heard from their grandparents while growing up and centers on a Navajo family that is menaced by a skinwalker while driving its sheep herd up a mountain. Even though the film is fictional, the events it depicts are designed to mirror real circumstances.
“There’s a lot of creepy stuff that happens on the Navajo Nation,” Kolette said. “And horror movies typically take place in those isolated settings. On the reservation, your neighbors are usually at least a mile away.”
A faithful representation of Navajo culture in the film is one of its hallmarks, Kody said.
“It kind of annoys me how things are (misrepresented) in our culture,” he said. “I thought we needed to make a movie where we do it correctly. I knew it would be expensive, but I talked to my crew, and they were up for it.”
One professional actor was recruited for the film, Denver’s Cosme Duarte, who plays the father of the Hosteen family. But the rest of the cast is Navajo, including Alimudena Curley, who plays his wife; Kolin as the couple’s older son, and Tyrelle Sells as the younger son.
“They never did any acting before, but we put them in situations where they understood the environment,” Kody said.
In fact, some of the scenes hit uncomfortably close to home from an emotional standpoint, he said.
“Some parts were scary,” he said. “We were actually re-enacting the stories we’d heard in some of the scenes, and it was almost witchcraft kind of stuff. ... There were moments where we’d get scared.”
The Dayishes said they went to great lengths not to treat such material disrespectfully or sensationalize it, though they understand that some Navajos will be skeptical of any attempt to include that part of their belief structure in a horror film.
“We did take that into consideration,” Kody said. “In fact, we hired a few medicine men apprentices (as consultants). If anything was way too much, they had the ability to stop us.”
He said he realizes that may not satisfy everyone who sees the film, and he’s prepared for the fact that it may generate some controversy among his fellow Navajos.
“The bottom line is, people are going to be talking about it,” he said. “We do respect our culture. And it’s not like (this fillm will be) the only thing out there (that deals with such subjects). There’s so much on YouTube that’s already out there.”
Kody said his goal, in fact, is to increase awareness of their own culture among young people on the reservation, something he said is severely lacking. And if being entertained by a horror film made by Navajos and featuring mostly Navajo actors inspires any of them to pursue something positive and creative, all the better, he figures.
He hopes his modest family enterprise demonstrates to other young people on the nation that they can create their own opportunities. In fact, Kody Dayish Productions already has raised money for a scholarship fund and will present its first award to a graduate from the Class of 2017 in May.
“We didn’t go to film school, yet we put our heads together and did this,” he said. “I hope other Navajo students want to take on acting or modeling rather than just stay home. We want to inspire them.”
Kolette shares her brother’s dream of seeing other Navajo young people respond positively to the film. But with another career waiting, she has no intention of making the film industry her life’s work.
“I don’t think so, mostly because we put everything we had into ‘The Red Hogan,’” she said. “To us, it’s very personal, and a lot of the teachings we grew up with are represented in it. ... Once you do a project like this, it’ll always be there. ... With that said, we did what we wanted to do.”
Even with the attention his work has gotten so far, Kody sounds ambivalent about making a film career his long-term plan.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “We came to an agreement ... as a team that we would do this for about two years and go full force. If it gets to where I want it, we’ll do another (film).
“But when it comes to entertainment, after a couple of years, you get boring — it doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “If we don’t get anywhere, we’ll call it quits. But we’ll know we made an investment in something we can keep.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.