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Travis Hamilton branches out from feature films with latest project

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FARMINGTON — When Arizona filmmaker Travis Hamilton was in the early stages of his career, the Idaho native dreamed of making feature films, telling interesting stories on a large scale and concentrating on indigenous characters and perspectives, which he believed were sorely under-represented in American cinema.

Over the last dozen years or so, he has managed to make that dream a reality, delivering such films as "Turquoise Rose," "Blue Gap Boy'z," "Pete & Cleo," "Legends From the Sky" and perhaps his best-known movie, "More Than Frybread," all of which are focused on Native themes and feature a Native cast.

Not even once during that time did he envision working on the kind of project that he was focused on over much of the last year.

"I never would have wanted to make a fitness video," he said, laughing.

But while visiting in the summer of 2018 with officials at a PBS affiliate in California who had been receptive to his work before, Hamilton asked them what kind of content they might be interested in. One of them mentioned the absence of television programming that focused on fitness for a Native audience.

Hamilton immediately saw the logic in that suggestion and sensed there might be a significant market for a series that focused on that subject. He put together a crew to produce the series, hired a host and spent much of September and October last year shooting 16 30-minute episodes at locations throughout the Navajo Nation, many of them in Window Rock.

The result is his new series "Native Fit with Freida" that is available through his Holt Hamilton Films website at holthamilton.com. It stars Navajo fitness instructor Elfreida Barton, who handled all the fitness-related aspects of the project, freeing Hamilton to concentrate on the creative and business sides.

If Hamilton had any worries about Barton's ability to relate to an audience remotely via television instead of leading a live session in a gym, they were quickly eliminated.

"I was very impressed — very, very impressed," he said, describing Barton's on-screen presence. "That was a big concern, since we were going to be shooting half-hour episodes — basically, eight hours of material."

Barton was personable, knowledgeable and energetic enough to carry the series and meet that challenge, Hamilton said.

"As soon as we would roll, she would get right into characters," he said.

With Barton in place, Hamilton turned his attention to creating not just another run-of-the-mill fitness program, albeit it one with a Native host. He wanted the show to focus on the realities of life for its target audience, and that meant it would not be shot in some spacious gym set up in a studio in a big city.

Instead, the settings for the various episodes are indoors and outdoors, most of them as natural as possible. One takes place at the Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park and Veterans Memorial, while others are shot the living room or kitchen of Window Rock homes. That kind of authenticity, familiarity and accessibility was important to Hamilton.

After all, many residents of reservations — not just those living on the Navajo Nation — live in places where they lack convenient access to a gym or traditional workout equipment. Hamilton envisioned a series that demonstrated to viewers how they could substitute items commonly found in their home for weights or how they could get a workout even while sitting in a chair.

The ironic thing about "Native Fit with Freida," Hamilton said with a rueful laugh, is that the folks who suggested the idea for the series in the first place — the PBS affiliate officials in California — haven't returned his phone calls since he pitched the series to them after he finished it. But he is not discouraged, envisioning many other avenues for distribution.

Hamilton hopes to arrange a meeting soon with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez to ask for his stamp of approval for the project. Hamilton believes that would help him develop a market for the series through tribal health centers, where it would be available in a DVD format.

But the big prize, he said, would be arranging for the distribution of the series through a video streaming format, which is the future of the industry, he said. Hamilton hopes to have arrangements for that made soon so that he can turn his attention to shooting a second season of the series.

In addition to his work on "Native Fit with Freida," Hamilton remains committed to producing films. His most recent cinema project was a documentary called "Empowered" that focused on the activities of a group of Jicarilla Apache young people, and he was pleased to be able to screen it at the recent Four Corners Film Festival in Farmington.

Since then, Hamilton said, "Empowered" has been accepted for festivals in Arizona and Los Angeles, and he has submitted it to approximately 18 other festivals around the country.

For his next feature film, Hamilton has been working on a script for a project he calls "a story of forgiveness." Originally, he envisioned a low-budget movie that would be driven by its characters and could be filmed at only a few locations.

But as the story evolved, Hamilton said it became more complicated, featuring set pieces in the 1950s and 1960s, including some that take place at a boarding school. That will make it more expensive to film, and Hamilton said before shooting can begin, he will have to seek investors for the film — a reality of life for small, independent filmmakers like himself who lack the financial backing of a studio.

But the project is very important to him, and he is intent on seeing it through.

"I thought, 'If I had the chance to make one more movie, what would that movie be?'" he said, describing its importance to him.

Then again, he never envisioned the fulfillment that "Native Fit with Freida" would bring him.

"There were a lot of times (during production) that I felt very good about what we were doing and what it could do for people's health in general," he said. " … There were other feature films I've worked on where I didn't have those spiritual moments or feelings of inspiration as deeply or as often as I did with this. It was really important for me to make this happen."

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

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