Harlem & Fort Belknap Student Film Festival Guides Filmgoers from the Past into the Future

Harlem High School, in partnership with MAPS Media Institute, is proud to announce the inaugural Harlem Student Film Festival on April 29th. “Guiding the way from our past into our future” will take place at the Harlem High School Gym on Saturday, April 29, 2023, from 4pm – 8pm. The event will begin with a student/filmmaker meet and greet, prayer and honor song, a community meal and the screening of four student films produced with MAPS Media Institute, as well as two student films created at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival’s Teen Documentary Intensive. The evening will culminate with the premiere of the students’ newest film “Blood Quantum.”

“This event is more than a film festival,” says Craig Todd, who recently retired after 32 years in education. It is a celebration to honor the hard work and dedication and the incredible success of the student filmmakers of Harlem and Fort Belknap over the last six years.”

In 2017, a serendipitous collaboration sewed the seeds of measurable creative success within the Hi-Line community of Harlem, MT. Following the efforts of the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) and their commitment to support quality after school opportunities, a seven minute video was produced to highlight successful programs across the state. The video,”Montana Afterschool” was produced by the Montana educational nonprofit, MAPS Media Institute (“MAPS”), and included the inspiring success story of Harlem’s Formula 1 in Schools team being two-time F1 in Schools Montana State Champions, and the first Native American team to compete in the National and World Championships. “Montana Afterschool” was distributed to schools and communities statewide, and initiated conversations between the Harlem School District and MAPS on ways to bring more film and media arts opportunities to the youth of the Fort Belknap community.

“This is exactly what we are in it for,” says Clare Ann Harff, MAPS Executive Director.

“MAPS, which stands for Media Arts in the Public Schools, was founded in Ravalli County in 2004. We’re a nationally awarded Montana non profit that offers free-of-charge classes in film, music, design, and new technologies for students in grades 8 through 12. While we have brick and mortar year round afterschool and summer programs in Hamilton and Helena, we also bring project based media workshops to schools and communities statewide. MAPS’s connection with the Fort Belknap community and the success of the student films illustrates what can happen as the result of a long term partnership.”

In June and September 2019, MAPS facilitated two week-long intensive documentary film workshops for Harlem High students. Astoundingly, the resulting films earned two National High School Production Award nominations and two Regional High School Production Awards from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Emmys), as well as being Official Selections for multiple film festivals.

The first of the two films, “Looking Forward From Yesterday,” beautifully explores the complicated relationships between cultural heritage and contemporary life for the Aaniiih (Gros Ventre) and Nakoda (Assiniboine) people of northern Montana. Not only was the documentary a resounding success, but it saw the deepening dedication on behalf of the students, who formed their own production company, Milk River Productions, as part of the MAPS workshop process.

The fall 2019 workshop was no less successful, but the film, “Waking the Generations” was still in post-production when the global pandemic exploded. Not to be discouraged, however, the students continued to work with MAPS through virtual editing workshops. This twenty-one minute video not only delves into such sensitive topics as drug abuse and suicide, but it offers multiple reflections from students and other members of the Harlem and Fort Belknap community on how cultural adherence can serve as a guardrail, even amidst the technological whirlwind of modern day life. Perhaps most poignant of all the images and thoughts conveyed in “Waking the Generations” is the sense that the film itself became an outlet for the community members who lent their time and skills to its production. Throughout each of its honest and patient scenes, the documentary becomes both a voice for the community, a mirror with which to see themselves.

Building on these previous successes, the young filmmakers in Harlem once again participated in a MAPS workshop in the summer of 2022. This time, their resulting film, “Blood Quantum” tackles the controversial topic of using measured portions of “Indian blood” to determine status within tribes.

When asked about the “Blood Quantum” film, the student director and Harlem High School senior, Amilia Blackcrow, shared, “The students chose the topic of Blood Quantum, and the other things that go with it like tribal ID’s, treaties, etc., because we felt it needed to be the next public conversation we have as native communities. I hope this film shows how important it is to be educated, not only with a degree but on who you are within your own culture. I also hope it helps people realize that we are evolving and always growing, and that we aren’t always going to look the same. Being darker/lighter doesn’t make you more/less native. We are a community and we need to stick together, not bring each other down.”

For the young filmmakers in the Fort Belknap community, the momentum has been staggering. External awards for MAPS – Fort Belknap student films thus far, include two National High School Production Award nominations and three Regional High School Production Awards from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, in addition to winning the nine Heart Awards from the Portland Fresh Northwest Film Festival, the Silver Award from the 2022 Native Indigenous Student Film Festival, and numerous film festival screenings throughout the Northwest.

The students’ success is measured beyond awards, though. The films have generated discussion among youth, elders, the greater Harlem and Fort Belknap community, and even beyond. “The impact of this program is powerful and far-reaching and it’s beneficial to everyone involved that we continue to let students tell their stories through film,” Todd explained.

An obvious question is ‘what’s next?’ To that end, Harlem School District and MAPS Media Institute are asking the community to consider welcoming a year-round MAPS afterschool and summer program for the students and families of the community. While it would be modeled after the MAPS programs in Ravalli and Lewis & Clark counties, it would be specifically designed to work with the needs of the Fort Belknap students. Initial funding could be provided by the Montana Office of Public Instruction. Harff adds, “While there are many steps in the planning process for a collaboration like this, the seeds were planted years ago. We’re in awe of these students, especially with their personal, community, and artistic successes. If a series of intensive workshops can support this level of success, it’s easy to imagine and envision what a year-round program could do.”

From the very first workshop with Fort Belknap students in 2017, the results have been exactly what MAPS loves to see: students taking skills they’ve learned and immediately transforming them into thought provoking, and personal pieces of art. Milk River Productions has taken root in Harlem, and while the skills that graduating students will take with them are beyond doubt, there are certainly far more stories to be told.

Read this article on the the Blaine County Journal website