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Shiprock filmmaker plans Navajo code talkers film
Kody Dayish Productions will begin shooting 'Unbroken Code' in 2018
FARMINGTON — It's not that the story of the legendary Navajo code talkers hasn't been told before, Kody Dayish acknowledges.
It's that their story hasn't been told from an expressly Navajo point of view.
That's the perspective the Shiprock native hopes to bring to his latest project, "Unbroken Code," a planned feature film about the Navajo servicemen who, while speaking a complicated code in their Diné tongue, were able to broadcast crucial Allied messages to each other that their Japanese foes were unable to decipher during World War II. That ability has been cited by many military figures and historians as helping provide Allied forces with a crucial edge in the Pacific Theater.
As a Navajo storyteller, Dayish is fully aware of the significant role the code talkers played in the war — and the importance of their action to his people. But the idea to present their story on film is something he has struggled with for some time. Dayish said it wasn't until now that he felt like he had the skill and maturity as a filmmaker to tell the story of the code talkers adequately.
"We wouldn't want to disrespect the code talkers by making a film that's (unworthy)," he said.
Dayish is hesitant to criticize the code talker films that have come before — most notably 2002's "Windtalkers," starring Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, Roger Willie and Christian Slater — but he believes there is yet to be made a film that truly focuses on the subject from the Navajo perspective.
"It's our side of the story," he said of "Unbroken Code." "'Windtalkers' was a good film … but it was a little bit less than what I wanted to see. … We're going to show the process of where we came from and how that came about."
Dayish's gentle criticism of "Windtalkers" certainly could have a sharper edge. While ostensibly relating the tale of the Navajo code talkers, the Hollywood film instead focuses most of its attention on the tortured psyche of the Italian-American sergeant, played by Cage, who leads the men in battle. Director John Woo treats the two main Navajo characters, played by Beach and Willie, largely as cardboard background figures, rendering a vitally important chapter in Navajo history almost into an afterthought.
In his review of the film, legendary critic Roger Ebert noted that shabby treatment, capturing the film's shortcomings by writing, "There is a way to make a good movie like 'Windtalkers,' and that's to go the indie route. A low-budget Sundance-style picture would focus on the Navajo characters, their personalities and issues. … The Navajo code talkers have waited a long time to have their story told. Too bad it appears here merely as a gimmick in an action picture."
Dayish and his siblings — brother Kolin and sister Kolette, who comprise the other two-thirds of Kody Dayish Productions, the family's film production company — have wanted to do a code talkers movie since they got into the film business in 2010. But they resisted that urge, intending to build their credibility and become more experienced by doing several other projects first.
Now, their collective résumé — which includes a number of award-winning short films and features — has developed to the point that they feel ready to tackle the subject. And they understand the film they produce likely will be scrutinized by Navajos everywhere.
"We decided to make 'The Red Hogaan' (a recently released feature-length horror film set on the Navajo Nation) to see if we're in this for the long haul," Kody said of his family's thinking in approaching the code talkers project the way it has.
Since wrapping up "The Red Hogaan," the Dayishes have added a second feature-length film, "Boy Who Cried Wolf," to their list of accomplishments. Kody believes the quality of that film has removed any lingering doubt about whether he and his siblings are ready to take on the code talkers story.
"'Boy Who Cried Wolf' is excellent," he said. "It is cinematically amazing. It is our best work."
The script for "Unbroken Code" already has been crafted by Kody and Kolin, who also play in a band together called Our Last Chants. The story they plan to tell will focus on two young Navajos who leave the reservation to join the Marine Corps at the outbreak of the war. The film will explore their decision-making process, their conflict over the families they are forced to leave behind, the sacrifices they make on behalf of a country that has relegated them to a reservation and, especially, the depth of their contribution to the war effort.
The film will be shot entirely on the Navajo Nation and will feature mostly Navajo actors. Most of the dialog will be presented in the Diné language, and for that reason, Kody is looking for lead actors who are fluent in that tongue.
As an independent filmmaker, he acknowledged the tight budgetary constraints he and his siblings operate under, and he knows it won't be easy to tell a World War II story with so little money. For that reason, he plans to shoot the combat scenes in a close-up, intimate fashion, one that places more of an emphasis on the physicality of the actors instead of the high-dollar, explosive special effects or elaborate sets that major studios favor.
Production will begin next year. Within the next few days, Kody Dayish Productions, which already has issued a casting call for the film, will hold auditions at two locations in the area. Those sites and times have not been determined but will be posted on the company's website.
"Unbroken Code" will feature six to seven main actors, all of whom will be played by Natives, as well as two to three smaller speaking roles for Caucasian actors, and many background parts for people of various ethnicity.
Kody said the company's phone line has been deluged with calls from people interested in appearing in the film since the project was announced two weeks ago at a film festival in Shiprock, and he said even those with no acting experience are encouraged to come to an audition.
With only a few surviving code talkers left, Kody feels a sense of urgency to tell their story properly.
"Now is the time to get a little deeper to see where the Navajo code talkers came from," he said.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.