The 6th World
By Nanobah Becker
Navajo Astronaut Tazbah Redhouse is a pilot on the first spaceship sent to colonize Mars. But a mysterious dream the night before her departure indicates there may be more to her mission than she understands.
“Navajos on Mars.” That was the idea my friend Dave offered when I asked what kind of sci-fi he’d like to see with Navajos in it. I was at home in New Mexico, hanging out on my friend’s porch, racking my brain to come up with an idea. I knew this was it.
In Navajo tradition, we inhabit the fifth world, having lived through and left four previous worlds to arrive at the present. Concerning a film set in the future, I wanted to write an origin story that might come from the sixth world. I borrowed heavily from Navajo origin stories and made the protagonist a modern Navajo woman disconnected from her spirituality yet given the responsibility of leading a mission for her people.
I had to consider our future as an American at the same time. So, I wondered how long until we use up our resources and make the Earth uninhabitable if we keep pursuing our consumption culture? Is that the thing which will force us to flee this world and go to the next? I set the story on a spaceship in the near future when corporations, not nations, fund the space race. The ship is sent by a multinational corporation to establish the first colony on Mars. The Navajo Nation supplies the fossil fuel for the trip.
Navajos have a spiritual connection with corn, and I always wanted corn to be an important part of the story. I thought about the difference between our sacred corn and modern, industrialized corn that has been developed through corporate farming for profit. (Is this desecration?) I often live my life taking for granted all of the technological advancements we now have, but I had to stop and think about how we got to this point.
Writing about man and space, I was inspired by the near past and the heroic Mercury 7, the seven military test pilots chosen to become NASA’s first astronauts in 1959. I grew up in Albuquerque at the end of the Cold War. We have an Air Force base with a nuclear weapons lab in town (their motto: “Securing a Peaceful and Free World Through Technology”). I learned that the Mercury 7 had gone through a series of examinations there. Thinking about the rapid technological advancements since then and those I’ve experienced in my lifetime (like the Internet), I realized for better or worse that I can thank military research for many of these. Indeed, the U.S. military, for better or worse, shapes my life, my ancestors’ lives, and continues to shape the lives of countless people around this globe.
So, where will all this belief in “progress” and the American way get us? To what end are we aspiring? And if we have to leave this world, what do we take with us and what do we leave behind? As a modern woman from an ancient traditional indigenous culture, I have to ask myself these questions all the time. What must we pass on?
—Nanobah Becker, Writer/Director
First stop: Monument Valley. About a week and a half before principal photography, our DP Kim and I hop into a jeep with a camera and some props to shoot the desert. We drive all day until sundown when Carlos, our location scout and an old friend, leads us into Monument Valley. We camp there under a million stars. We wake before dawn to start shooting in the valley.
Navajos on Mars was the kernel of the idea that led me to this film. Perfect, I thought, Navajos already live in a red desert! I was re-imagining Navajo emergence stories and found it vital to shoot on the Navajo Nation, within our sacred mountains where these stories were born. From the beginning, I knew the perfect spot on the reservation would be Monument Valley.
Through sand and up mesas, searching for cornfields and amazing views, Carlos knew where to go. The red earth desert was amazingly beautiful and the locations stunning. I told Carlos I wanted to shoot a rainbow while we were there, but no luck. On our last day, Kim and I were getting some last shots of corn before heading back to the city. Then I got a text from Carlos: a rainbow was forming in the valley. Sure enough, we looked up and saw it. Thanks Carlos!
Second stop: the San Fernando Valley. From one valley to the next, the rest of the shoot was on a stage in the San Fernando Valley on some steamy hot days toward the end of summer.
Pre-production was a challenge. Futuristic sci-fi is difficult on a limited budget, but Mars, our production designer, and her crew did an elegant job. Kim and Ashish and their crew worked extremely hard, enduring the heat of those dog days of summer. Alax and Claudia (hair and make-up) were amazing. Ken, our producer, and David, our first assistant director, along with Fred, Camille, and all the production assistants worked tremendously hard to make the film happen. Kevin was a pro.
I also had a committed, caring cast. Jeneda, who lives in Arizona, and Luis rehearsed over Skype. I wrote the part of General Bahe for Roger Willie, only knowing him from a John Woo film years ago. (It took a few weeks to track him down via word on mouth on the rez. Luckily, he graciously agreed to play the part.) Leith is an amazing talent who was wonderful to work with on this film.
The last day on the stage we shot Jeneda chanting in front of the green screen. Visual effects were completely new to me, and Adam, our fantastic visual effects supervisor, was there to guide. Jeneda shined in her performance that day, and we were feeling good about the stuff we got. Later, she would be riding that rainbow to Mars.
—Nanobah Becker, Writer/Director
Filmmaker Nanobah Becker earned her MFA in directing from Columbia University in 2006. Her shorts Flat and Conversion (official selection, Sundance Film Festival) have screened around the world. Her screenplay Into the Ring got her a Sundance Institute-Ford Fellowship, and she was awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship for her screenplay Full, which went on to the Tribeca All Access program. Becker’s producer credits include the award-winning Navajo-language short Shimásání (Tribeca and Sundance film festivals). She is a native of Albuquerque and a graduate of Brown University.
Ken Kristensen received an MFA from Columbia University’s film school, where he distinguished himself by being the only student in the history of the school to win all three screenplay awards with three different scripts. While still in film school he was selected to both the Sundance and IFP labs, and worked as an associate producer onSorry, Haters. After graduation, he sold two scripts to Image Comics and Dark Horse Entertainment, both of which will be published as graphic novels in 2011. Kristensen’s producer credits include seasons of JAIL, Las Vegas Jailhouse, and Road Warriors.
Luis Aldana – Doctor Smith
Luis Aldana is a graduate of UCLA and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He has worked with Peter Sellars in the adaptation of Gean Genet’s The Screens. He has also worked extensively with the Latino Theater Company, where he was part of the lab that created and performed the award-winning piece Melancholia. Aldana has starred in a number of films, including Crabgrass Manifesto, The Silent Cross,Pelea de Gallos, The Invitation, and For The Love of Money. He co-founded Cinetico Productions.
Jenada Benally – Tazbah Redhouse
Jeneda Benally is Dine’ (Navajo) born into the heart of the Navajo Hopi land dispute. Her clans are Bi’ee’lichii’ii, born for To’dichiinii. Her maternal grandparents are Polish and her paternal grandparents are Naakai Dine’. As the bass player and singer in the musical group Blackfire, Benally has toured the world with her siblings to bring social and environmental injustice to an international stage. This is her first lead role acting experience.
Leith Burke – Corporate Official
Leith Burke’s theater credits include Judgment at Nuremberg with Maximillian Schell on Broadway, three seasons with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, The Tempest with David Strathairn at A.C.T., Antony and Cleopatra at the Guthrie Theater, and the world premiere of Neighbors at the Matrix. His film and television credits include Black August, Brother to Brother, various Law and Orders, C.S.I. NY, Criminal Minds, Dark Blue, West Wing, Medium, and Numb3rs, among others. He is currently working on the second season of the web series The Steps.
Roger Willie – General Bahe
Navajo educator, artist, and actor Roger Willie made his screen debut in John Woo'sWindtalkers—a role which was informed by his own experience serving in the U.S. Army's elite 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, NC. This led to additional roles inAdaptation, Edge of America, Lost Stallion: The Journey Home, and Wesley. Willie is also an accomplished visual artist who teaches art and coaches highs school football in Thoreau, New Mexico.
Brian Smolensky - Guard
Brian Smolensky graduated at the top of his class at the United States Air Force Academy where he studied Humanities and Philosophy, but also found time for acting and directing through the Academy's production company, BlueBards. Following his service as a U.S. Air Force pilot, Smolensky began to pursue acting, writing, and directing full-time. On stage he has performed in Hamlet, The Glass Menagerie, A Few Good Men, and Henry V. His film and television credits include roles in Prison Break,Disrupt/Dismantle, The Gadarene Swine, and Recalled.