'Mayors of Shiprock' to premiere Friday

Documentary film five years in the making chronicles story of Northern Diné Youth Committee members

Noel Lyn Smith
Northern Diné Youth Committee member Eliseo Curley is interviewed by filmmaker Ramona Emerson in this production still from "Mayors of Shiprock."

FARMINGTON — A new documentary film that tells the story of the Northern Diné Youth Committee is set to premiere today in Shiprock.

Filmmaker Ramona Emerson and her husband, Kelly Byars, the film's producer, have been following members of the youth committee, which is based in Shiprock, since March 2012.

The resulting film, "Mayors of Shiprock," will premiere at 6 p.m. today at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock.

"It feels good to have it done," Emerson said in a telephone interview in Albuquerque, where the couple resides.

The 56-minute film features interviews with committee members and residents while also chronicling the impact the group has had on Shiprock, including projects that members have completed since the formation of the group in April 2010.

A frame from "Mayors of Shiprock" shows a member of the Northern Diné Youth Committee participating in the group's Earth Day community clean up.

For five years, the couple watched the group grow from teenagers to young adults, with some earning college degrees while others embraced traditional knowledge and teachings.

"It was good to see that progression in all of them and to be there for it," Emerson said.

Adam J. Begaye was one of the youth committee members profiled in the film, which chronicles his 2015 election to the Central Consolidated School District Board of Education. He recalled Emerson approaching him about telling the story of his budding political career because of its potential to inspire young people to enter similar leadership roles.

Begaye, 22, was filmed on election day in February 2015 and when he took the oath of office later that month in Santa Fe.

A frame from "Mayors of Shiprock" shows then Northern Diné Youth Committee member Adam J. Begaye meeting voters on election day in February 2015. Begaye was seeking a seat on the Central Consolidated School District Board of Education.

"It was an experience," he said about being featured in the documentary.

He added, "This shows people there are youth in the community who are willing to take that chance."

In addition to capturing the lives of group members, the film highlights founding member Graham Biyáál, who worked with Emerson on a separate film project in Shiprock. Biyáál said he was about 18 years old when filming started and is now 27.

Shiprock resident Graham Biyáál, a founding member of the Northern Diné Youth Committee, stands in front of the Healing Circle Drop-In Center in Shiprock on Wednesday. The group's story is the focus of "Mayors of Shiprock" and the first committee meeting was held at the center in April 2010.

While he has changed through the years, his focus to improve the quality of life in the community has not diminished, he said.

"It could potentially inspire people to think out of the box in their own surroundings," Biyáál said about the film.

As for the name of the film, Biyáál said he remembers talking to Emerson about ideas he had for the group. Based on those conversations, she started calling him the mayor of Shiprock. The title evolved to "Mayors of Shiprock" after the focus turned from telling just Biyààl's story to include other members.

Emerson interviewed some 30 people during her work on the film, but only a handful were selected to appear on screen due to time constraints. For some interviews and footage that did not make the cut, she is working to obtain funding to post those online at shiprockexperience.com.

Emerson said when she and her husband started the project, they knew they wanted it to premiere in Shiprock.

"We made the film for them, so we want them to see it first," she said.

She added the documentary will air on KNME, the PBS affiliate based in Albuquerque, in October, followed by a national broadcast on PBS in November.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

If you go

What: "Mayors of Shiprock" premiere

When: 6 p.m. today

Where: The Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center in Shiprock

Admission: Free