Navajo Athletes Race Toward Future in ‘Up Heartbreak Hill’

Airing on New Mexico PBS — Ch. 5.1 – Thursday, July 26 at 9 p.m. & Saturday July 28 at 10 p.m. & on Ch. 9.1 – Thursday, August 2 at 9 p.m.

Teen Angst Typically Includes Conflict Between Past and Future—But What If the Past Is the Reservation and the Future a World Apart?

A Co-production of ITVS and Native American Public Telecommunications, Inc. (NAPT.;
A Co-presentation with NAPT. Program is Part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen

“A refreshing, original film about the challenges of indigenous youth.” — Ryan Little, Washington City Paper

The hopes and heartbreaks of senior year of high school comprise a defining part of teenage life and lore in America. Graduation marks the end of childhood, partings from family, friends and community and the start of a future that is both exciting and scary. But for Thomas Martinez, a statewide high school cross-country and track star, and Tamara Hardy, an academic as well as athletic star, growing up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico has heightened these tensions in ways particular to Native American history and contemporary reservation life. Erica Scharf’s new documentary, Up Heartbreak Hill, is a chronicle of one fateful year in the lives of two talented kids who must figure out not only how to become young adults, but what it means to be both Native and modern.

Up Heartbreak Hillhas its national broadcast premiereonThursday, July 26, at 9 p.m. on New Mexico PBS Ch. 5.1, during the 25th anniversary season of the award-winning PBS series POV (Point of View). The film will also stream on POV’s website from July 27 – Aug. 26. American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, POV is the winner of a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, twoInternational Documentary Association Awards for Continuing Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers Corporate Commitment to Diversity Award.

At 27,000 square miles, the Navajo Nation is the largest Indian reservation in the United States, sprawling across parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Its population is approximately 300,000. The land is beautiful and harsh, with few resources to support economic development or the preservation of traditional Navajo culture, and with little economic incentive for ambitious young people to stay. As Thomas ruefully admits, “Around here, everyone thinks they live in a third-world country.” In fact, his hometown of Navajo, N.M., has a per-capita income of about $6,100 a year according to the 2010 U.S. Census, and only 30% of kids graduate from high school. The juxtaposition of the land’s arid beauty and the impoverished communities seen in Up Heartbreak Hill runs like an unsettling tone poem through the film. Thomas’ ambition is “to go to college, come back here and make a difference for my nation.”

The Navajo people, who once shunned the educational system of their conquerors, which imposed suppression of the Navajo language, have embraced education as their best hope of survival. They dream of sending their children off to higher education and seeing them return to become leaders in their tribal communities. Yet the reluctance of Native parents to see their children actually go—and possibly not return—and the attachment of the kids to a place and way of life that is profoundly their own, creates emotional conflicts. Even a distance of 600 miles, which is how far Thomas will be from the reservation if he attends Eastern New Mexico University, is enough to create a crisis of abandonment between Thomas and his father, Jazz. Similarly, Tamara wants to go on scholarship to four-year Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo. But as much as her parents support her ambitions, they cannot bear the idea of her going so far away and urge her to attend a two-year community college that is closer by.

Add to these tensions some of the problems—broken families, substance abuse, teen pregnancy—that Thomas and Tamara see around them, and these teens carry burdens far weightier than those of most 18-year-olds. As standouts at Navajo Pine High School and steeped in a deep Navajo tradition of running, they become the objects of family and community hopes while they carry on a typical adolescent struggle to understand themselves.

Thomas has a rebellious streak, signaled by his brightly colored Mohawk haircut, which makes him easy to spot as he circles the track. He is also involved in a racially tinged conflict with one of his white teachers that almost gets him tossed off the cross-country team days before a pivotal race. Dedicated and driven, he likes to test himself against “Heartbreak Hill,” the infamous ascending pass on the local cross-country course, and hopes to win a state title and a college scholarship. Yet Thomas cannot quite free himself from the mesh of a broken family, which includes his reformed but troubled alcoholic father, an absent mother and the aunt who took him in when his grandmother died in a car accident.

Tamara, too, is a runner and she is also senior class president and a top contender for valedictorian, completing an impressive course load that includes the Navajo language and advanced placement calculus. She is upbeat, charismatic and popular among her fellow students. Her family is happy and stable, and her parents supportive of her ambitions to pursue an engineering degree. Yet even she expresses deep ambivalence about seeking education off the reservation and, given her career prospects, of moving away for good.

What Thomas calls his love of “the mountains, the trees and the thought of being free” as he makes practice runs through the ochre, rock-faced landscape of the reservation speaks eloquently to the spiritual attachment these Native American youths have to their land and to the traditional Navajo way of life. Up Heartbreak Hill is a poignant account of how these two teenagers manage a dramatic coming of age under the long shadow of a troubled history.

“My suburban New York high school had not a single Native American kid in a student body of 2,000, and the only reference to modern-day Native society I can recall pertained to casinos,” says director Erica Scharf. “Almost everything I learned was presented within the context of ‘long ago.’ Up Heartbreak Hill was born of the realization that as Americans, we are largely unaware not only of cultures abroad but, perhaps even more alarmingly, of communities within our own borders. I hope this film will help forge a greater understanding of a rarely glimpsed American community—a nation within a nation—whose current history, tribulations and triumphs are widely ignored.

“Thomas and Tamara’s decisions are dominated by the push-pull of a place whose very earth they have been connected to for hundreds of years but whose socio-economic realities make attaining even basic standards so challenging. They are not always victims and they are not always heroes, although they have had to deal with more adversity in their 18 years than many others have. In essence, they are teenagers—and their story is, in many ways, a universal one. They struggle to find their families, to leave their families, to navigate the choppy waters of the high school social scene and to chart a path for the future.”

Up Heartbreak Hill is a co-production of Long Distance Films, NAPT, ITVS, POV’s Diverse Voices Project and New Mexico PBS, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The film is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a national public media initiative made possible by CPB to identify and implement solutions to the dropout crisis. 

About the Filmmaker:

Erica Scharf (Director, Producer, Cinematographer)

Erica Scharf has spent much of her career in documentary film and television. She is currently a producer for HGTV’s popular series House Hunters International. She has also worked as an editor on the documentary program The Shift (Investigation Discovery). In 2008, she spent six months on location in Dallas, shooting and producing A&E’s documentary television series The First 48. She has also edited several episodes of The First 48.

Scharf began her career as an associate producer for Worlds Apart (NGC), a vérité travel and culture program. She directed and edited Marnee: A Garage Sale Retrospective, which won first place at Movie Making Madness 2005, and edited City, which won Best Short Film at the 2007 Aspen Shortsfest. Other credits include Dual Survival (Discovery), Celebrity Ghost Stories (Biography) and SWAT (A&E). In 2005, she was the assistant editor on God Grew Tired of Us, which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for Documentary at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. She is a graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she received a bachelor of fine arts degree in film and television.

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