Big Sky Film Festival Features Documentary on Browning’s “Rising Voices” Club

I have the power to describe myself to other people.
You get to step out of your comfort zone just a little bit.
Some of our old ways may have died out, but we’re still here.
We’re. Still. Here.

These are words of young writers from Rising Voices, a creative writing club formed by students at Browning High School on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

Their experience is the subject of a new film, itself called “Rising Voices,” produced by these same students, in collaboration with the MAPS Media Institute of Hamilton.

The club learned this week that their film would be included in the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula.

Three students got director credits on the film: Hailie Henderson, a Browning graduate and college freshman at Whitworth University, junior Ali Archambault and sophomore Weslee Pree.

Originally calling themselves the No Name Poetry Club, Browning students began working together in the fall of 2014, writing poems and sharing them with each other at what soon became weekly after-school sessions in the high school library round room.

Each year since, the club has met from September to May, with a community reading in May as an annual highlight.

“It is our goal that the students who participate in this program will become empowered and inspired through the development of their own voices as poets and performers,” club adviser Amy Conrey Andreas said.

“Students provide constructive feedback to their peers and learn to be better, more confident writers,” she said. “Our group allows the students a safe place to explore issues of identity, resilience, and culture and encourages the formation of a supportive, therapeutic writing community within the school.”

Students also are encouraged to submit their writing to venues beyond the school district and to see themselves as part of a larger community of writers.

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In 2017, Rising Voices was highlighted in the 21st issue of The Whitefish Review, edited by Montana Poet Laureate Lowell Jaeger.

In a preface to the issue, Jaeger cited the Rising Voices Poetry Club as “an inspiring example of high school writers from Browning High School in the heart of the Blackfeet Nation [who] came together trying to discover what it is they have to say – what messages of value they have for the rest of us.”

A poem by former club member Dylan Running Crane, who now attends the University of Montana, was featured in that issue.

The MAPS Media Institute became involved with Rising Voices in 2018, when club members envisioned a film of their work.

The MAPS Media Lab — MAPS statewide outreach program which brings media arts workshops to students in rural and reservation communities across Montana — made it possible for the Browning students to use state-of-the-art equipment and learn film-making from accomplished media arts professionals. Support from the Greater Montana Foundation brought to fruition this vision of a student-created film about the work of Rising Voices.

MAPS Media Lab Director Dru Carr praised Browning High School as rich with “exceptionally gifted writers and performers.”

“MAPS was privileged to work with these inspiring students,” Carr said. “In just a few days, we were able to combine their spoken word pieces with cameras and audio equipment, and the result is the short film “Rising Voices.”

The students shot the film and worked with MAPS and Browning instructors to create their own scenes that would illustrate their original poems.

“The film is a culmination of that imagination. Browning is truly privileged to have the Rising Voices program, spearheaded by Amy Conrey Andreas,” Carr said. “But Montana is privileged as well – to have this new generation to lead the way.”

The film incorporates footage of the spectacular East Front with Blackfeet language, Blackfeet music and students sharing original poems and their feelings about what learning to write original work means to them.

The persuasive and powerful teaching of spoken-word poet Tahj Kjelland and his Express 2 Speak program, sponsored by Humanities Montana, also is made clear in the film.

Andreas said Kjelland models for students how to become more confident in writing and performing spontaneous poetry, helping them find and value their creative voice.

“His skill and style have helped our students rid themselves of their negative internal editors,” she said. “We want to help them realize their words have power and that those words are valued by those around them. So many of our students get hung up just trying to put words on the page.”

Clare Ann Harff, MAPS Media Institute director, said the film focuses on “finding your inner voice,” and she was impressed with what Browning students accomplished with the film.

“The main goal of the MAPS Media Lab statewide outreach program is to provide impactful media arts experiences to Montana’s rural and reservation youth,” she said. “The Browning Rising Voices video is an inspiring example of how this can really work to assist students with documenting and sharing their powerful stories.”

The film festival is Feb. 15-24, and Andreas plans to take the students to the film’s big screen debut. MAPS expects the film also will air on local channels.