Second annual event took place June 22 in Shiprock

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FARMINGTON — When Tacey Atsitty and Michael Lewis began making plans a few years ago to organize an annual festival that featured exclusively Navajo-language films, they did so with the hope that they would attract the work of aspiring young Native filmmakers.

Now, two years into the project, Atsitty acknowledges the festival hasn't been as successful as she and Lewis hoped it would be in that regard. But she remains committed to the festival — and to providing opportunities for young people interested in creating films made from a strong Navajo perspective.

The second annual Navajo Film Festival took place June 22 at the Phil L. Thomas Performing Arts Center on the Shiprock High School campus. A total of $800 in prize money was awarded to a handful of winning films, and Atsitty said the event was a step up from last year's inaugural event, which was held at Navajo Preparatory School in Farmington.

"We got really good feedback, especially about the venue," Atsitty said June 27.

The festival attracted seven entries this year, a slight increase over the six that were submitted last year. Atsitty knows the festival is never likely to draw a lot of entries because it is restricted to those filmed in the Navajo language, and films are limited to four minutes in length. That rules out English-language films and many documentaries.

But part of the reason those rules exist, she told The Daily Times in February, is to help the festival's primarily Navajo audience learn and retain its own language. The festival was designed to be an outlet for short, small-budget projects that present Navajo-language films in a format that is not overwhelming.

Some filmmakers have responded to that challenge. The big winner at this year's festival was "Ni'tsii Niltsa Yaahaalne' (Hair Tells the Weather)" by Cherylee Francis, which captured both the Audience Choice Prize and the overall First Place award. Benford Beco Begay earned the second-place award for "Silly Billy Dine: Na'nilkaadi (Sheepherder)," while third place went to Luke Hunt for "First Lessons."

Local comic Chizz Bah served as the host for the event, which also featured a musical performance by the group Our Last Chants. The festival featured screenings of all the entries, which included an animated children's short, a look at the importance of authentic indigenous artwork and a profile of a 6-year-old half-Brazilian, half-Navajo child.

"It was a great event this year," co-organizer Lewis stated in a press release. "I was incredibly proud that both the number of submissions and size of the audience increased from last year. We are so grateful for the continued support from the community. Our focus next year is to increase the number of children and teenagers who participate. We're excited to partner with other community organizations in the future to help grow an event that so many are passionate about."

The festival also featured the screening of a short demonstration film made by Atsitty called "Rainkind." She shot the film on her cellphone and edited it using the Movie Maker software in two and a half hours, a project she said was designed to show how easy it is to produce your own film project.

"We just wanted to stress to people they can tell their stories and have people work with the language, even if they're not fluent speakers," she said. "We just want them to get out and interact with the language."

More: Organizers hope for growth in second year of Navajo Film Festival

The film is based on a book by Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Laura Tohe and featured readings of two of her works, as well as footage designed to mirror Tohe's imagery.

"It's kind of an artsy film," Atsitty said. "But I wanted people to think, 'I could do something like that.'"

Atsitty said she and Lewis have been talking to Central Consolidated School District officials about the possibility of their collaborating with Shiprock High School students on film projects and possibly scheduling a two-day film workshop at the school.

More: Navajo Film Festival finds new home in Shiprock

Plans are already underway for next year's festival. Atsitty said the festival is likely to be a slow-growing project, but she eventually would like to see members of the Navajo community take greater ownership of it.

"We're all about creating opportunities for youth, and even though we didn't get any (entries from children or teens), this is still a good opportunity for young people to see what's available to them," she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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