Zhao ’05 brings stirring depiction of Native American life to big screen.

Zhao will debut her first feature film at Sundance this month.

By Keely Savoie

As a student at Mount Holyoke College, Chloe Zhao ’05 learned the value of her own viewpoints.

Now, as a screenwriter/director, Zhao brings that same self-possessed confidence to her career, using it to raise the voices of those who have previously been unheard. Her first feature film, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, will premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in January.

“My experience at Mount Holyoke was very formative,” said Zhao. “It was a very encouraging environment and I didn’t have to raise my voice to be heard.”

Zhao’s quiet yet strong voice is what characterizes Songs, which she describes as a “beautiful, impressionistic cinéma vérité love film” that follows the story of two central characters, a Lakota brother and sister, as they rediscover their roots against the stark backdrop of the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.

While at Mount Holyoke, Zhao majored in politics with a minor in film studies, imagining going into politics or law. But after graduating, she realized her true talent and interest lay in telling the untold stories she found in the world around her.

Four years ago, her boundless quest for storytelling led her to the Pine Ridge reservation for the first time.

“It was life changing,” she recalled, noting that the way the media portrays the culture is much different from reality. “I was very attracted to the strength and generosity, the humor and spirituality that the people had—still so alive and vibrant. I wanted to tell a story that was a bit different than the one I am used to seeing.”

After countless drafts—she rewrote the script daily—Zhao had produced what she described as “a modern and complex portrait of reservation life, that explores the bond between brother and sister who set out to rediscover what home means to them.”

The story can be read both as a sliver of subjective truth in that microcosmic world, and as a lens to a broader universal experience, she said.

“In any kind of small town, there is a similar kind of struggle. How do you leave the only place you have ever known or the only place that gave you a sense of belonging?” she said. “When things get difficult and the world is telling you that where you are is problematic, what does it mean? What does it mean to stay and what does it mean to go? I think that is a universal question.”

Through her carefully observed treatment of her characters and their lives, Zhao shatters the warped lens through which the history and culture of Native Americans are portrayed in the mainstream.

“The media often portrays Native Americans as one-dimensional stereotypes that are lacking something, either in a good way or a bad way,” said Zhao. “This is a lot more complicated than right or wrong,” she continued. “The best thing I could do is get to know a lot of people on the reservation and allow them to lead me and tell their own stories,” she said. “Even though the story is fictionalized, I am not imposing what I think the storyline should be. I am incorporating real-life events and casting real people because of who they are already in their lives.”

The end result is focused tightly on the lives of its intimately portrayed characters—but the goal is much broader.

“We are portraying the lives of these individuals at this specific moment in time. Because if you get to know ten people as individuals as opposed to stereotypes of what Native Americans are, it is much more powerful.”

Songs My Brothers Taught Me received the Gotham Independent Film’s Calvin Klein Euphoria Spotlight on Women Filmmakers "Live the Dream" Grant, a grant designed to encourage women’s voices in film.

“The film industry is very tough on women," Zhao said. "[In the film industry], we need a similar thing to encourage more female voices."

Related article: Mount Holyoke College Professor Samba Gadjigo’s documentary will also premiere at Sundance. It celebrates Ousmane Sembène, the “father of African cinema,” who taught Africans to reclaim and share their stories.

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