Chiefs, an 87-minute documentary chronicling the struggles and triumphs of high school basketball players on Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation, is getting its first extended theatrical release. The site of the screening -- the Starz FilmCenter -- is on land that was once prime hunting ground for the Northern Arapahoe tribe, which is now isolated and impoverished in central Wyoming.
Director (and Wyoming native) Daniel Junge and co-producer Henry Ansbacher, who teamed with Oscar-winning local filmmaker Donna Dewey for the project, dropped by the stately Westword offices recently to discuss their doc. Junge and Ansbacher, who made films together at Colorado College prior to graduating in 1992, are partners in Denver's Just Media, with offices on -- that's right -- Arapahoe Street.
When Junge decided to make the film, in 1999, he approached Ansbacher, who was working as a counselor on the Western Slope, and Dewey, at whose film company Junge had worked for a short time "getting coffee." The two were enthusiastic backers: Ansbacher was able to secure a $15,000 grant to start, and within a couple of weeks, Junge was living on the rez, with a camera and some money left over "for peanut butter and jelly."
Westword:Why this topic?
Junge:I was in London, researching for the BBC, and remembered this team. We knew about the Chiefs, a small school that beat the hell out of larger ones. The idea had been fermenting for years, and I didn't want to give it up. I only called two people; I'm used to rejections. They said yes.
The hard part?
Junge: The intimacy doesn't happen right away, particularly with teenagers on a reservation. I never said I was doing a film about Indians. I said, 'I'm doing a film about basketball.'
Ansbacher: That's such a focal point of pride on the rez.
The film takes in two seasons: 1999-2000 and 2000-2001. What prompted that?
Ansbacher: That was Donna's expertise, and it made a much more interesting story with a more complete arc: We explored how some of the characters fare after high school.
How have Native Americans viewed this film, which includes images of poverty and pot-smoking?
Junge:They appreciate the honesty. It's not sugarcoated.
Ansbacher: We hope the film will incite dialogue on the reservation and heighten awareness of non-Indians.
Chiefs, which runs through December 5 at Starz, is also slated to air nationally on PBS on April 1, 2003. Call 303-820-3456 or log on to starzfilmcenter.com for details.