HAMILTON, MT — In 2004, a retired Hollywood producer started a free, after-school program in Corvallis to teach high school kids filmmaking.
Media Arts In The Public Schools, or MAPS, has now grown to include programs across the state. Based in Hamilton, MAPS Media Institute teaches youngsters film production, graphic design, music production, and new technology. For its work, MAPS is now the recipient of television’s highest honor.
In 2023, MAPS received an Emmy Award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Northwest Chapter for the work it has done since 2004. MAPS Executive Director, Clare Ann Harff couldn’t be prouder.
“MAPS is most certainly a trailblazer within Montana,” she said, in art, creativity and education.
Since its inception 19 years ago, MAPS has helped more than 10,000 students tap into their creative talents.
“We’re helping these students learn how to take an idea or a skill and how to transfer those into something,” said Clare Ann, “whether that be a screenplay, a film, a song, or a piece of digital art. Any of those skills learned can be applied to anything they go into.”
Many students have gone into the film or television industry. For some, their journey has taken them to Hollywood.
Like “being a PA for a Hollywood production or going to Hollywood in an art school,” said Clare Ann. ” We’ll back that up. We’ll help them get scholarships. We’ll help them find resources.”
But since MAPS began, creative possibilities have exploded into so many more niches.
“A lot of these students have a creative direction already,” said Clare Ann. “Due to the internet and a lot of online opportunities, they’re able to forge their own path, especially with direction from other artists.”
For others, MAPS has been a springboard into whole other areas. Some go into post-secondary education.
“Or (they) may want to start a business or a family, “said Clare Ann. “Anything they learn here can be applied.”
Through the years, MAPS has added a summer program. It built a year-round brick-and-mortar site in Helena and a seasonal program on the Flathead Indian Reservation to serve Lake County students. It created MAPS Media Lab, an outreach program.
“It’s basically a roadshow,” said Clare Ann. “We pack up MAPS, our equipment, our instructors, our curriculum, and we bring it to students and communities across the state. We’ve worked with students for multiple years in Thompson Falls, East Helena, Browning on the Blackfeet Nation, and Fort Peck. We’ve had a year-long program there.”
In its work, MAPS has contracted with community organizations and businesses. The students tell stories of their place in Montana.
“One interesting aspect within film is the role of place,” said Clare Ann. “Without steering students to that, more often than not, where they’re from, their place on the planet is part of those stories.”
Place can be anything, from mountains to plains in hometowns all across Montana. Every story has texture. Clare Ann said as part of their film, students in East Helena used a slag pile as one of their characters.
MAPS continues to stretch its mission. It’s working in the Fort Belknap community.
“We’re working with the Tribal community and the school community,” said Clare Ann, ” to bring our third brick-and-mortar up there.”
MAPS Media Institute’s presence at Fort Belknap has sparked tremendous interest among students and their entire community. Young people have produced several film projects that have attracted attention from all over the country. When she was a kid, Amilia Blackcrow, whose Native name is Little Cloud Woman, watched movies on VHS tapes so much that she wore the tapes out.
“I love film,” said the Fort Belknap native. ” I love the visual.”
It’s through visuals that Amilia connects. It’s her art form.
“I think it’s the easiest way to connect with people,” said Amilia. ” Once you have your own art style, you notice nobody else can do it. Nobody else can have that. It’s your fingerprint.”
When MAPS Media Institute came to Fort Belknap, it opened doors for Amilia to build her dream.
“Having MAPS Media come out and teach us how to film, how to write, how to tell our stories is important,” she said. ” because you’re getting us. You’re getting the truth. A story you’ve never heard before.”
Amilia and her filmmaking colleagues tell their own stories.
“Not from another person’s point of view,” she said. “Our voice is needed. Because so many people have written our stories for us, and that’s why we’re so stereotypical because nobody knows who we are.”
The Indigenous people in Amilia’s community are the A’aninin Nakoda.
“But,” said Amilia, “I like to refer to “we” as all Indigenous people because we were put through the same thing. When the white man came,” she said, “he asked the natives how much the land was, and the natives told them you can’t buy land because it comes from the Creator. They didn’t understand that,” she said, “so they put us in reservations, and they blocked us off. So, I just think we need to stop thinking about control and start thinking about being people.”
Amilia believes that filmmaking – visual storytelling, like the training that MAPS provides, can help do that.
“I think the fact that we want to talk about it is amazing,” she said. “It’s a sign of healing. It’s a sign that we’re going towards healing.”
Amilia is a serious student of her Native culture.
“We roamed the land,” she said. “We walked with our buffalo. We followed them. That’s why we have our teepees; because they were so easy to take down and put back up. We were mobile.”
As a young filmmaker, Amilia hopes to bridge past with present.
“It’s important to know who you are,” she said, “your history – because you can’t grow and learn if you don’t know where you come from.”
But she tells her stories through a contemporary lens from a new generation.
These films are about “who we are now,” she said. ” It’s from us.”
The work of Amilia and her fellow filmmakers has earned a great deal of attention. Through MAPS Media Institute, several of the students’ films have won regional high school student production awards from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Northwest Chapter. Two films were nominated for national student production awards as well as being invited to screen at several regional film festivals. Amilia credits MAPS for introducing her to a wider world.
“I’ve got to go to so many places and talk to so many people,” she said.
Much of that interaction, she said, has been with other Native Americans. Her work, she believes, isn’t just to entertain and educate about her Native world.
“Being Native,” she said, “just adds a whole other responsibility of preservation.” Amilia is working on her fingerprint.
“What I want my fingerprint to be,” she said, “isn’t to be known as Amilia, a Native American woman, or Amilia, this Native American woman, Amilia, this filmmaker. I want to be known as a person that tried to connect with others.”
For Little Cloud Woman from Fort Belknap, it’s just the beginning. She has so many stories to tell.
MAPS Montana Moment will air again on Friday (1/19/24) at 5pm.