Wilma Mankiller swearing into office as Deputy Chief in 1983: Courtesy of the Wilma Mankiller FoundationValerie Red-Horse Mohl
, a filmmaker of Cherokee ancestry, is the owner/founder of Red-Horse Native Productions, Inc., which has become a preeminent collaborator with American Indian tribal nations to bring important Native stories accurately and respectfully to the screen. She is a member of the Directors Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and an inductee of the Nawbo (National Association of Women Business Owners) Hall of Fame. Her directorial work includes “Naturally Native
,” “True Whispers
: The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers,” and “Choctaw Code Talkers
” will premiere at the 2017 La Film Festival on June 19.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
Vrhm: This is a documentary about an amazing human being. “Mankiller
” is the powerful story of Wilma Mankiller, who found her voice in San Francisco’s civil rights movement and returned to lead the Cherokee Nation as the first woman to be elected Principal Chief.
She achieved more positive changes for the Nation than any other leader before or after. She overcame numerous obstacles including rampant sexism and racism, but she never wavered.
Her life story is so much more than a biography; it is truly an example of grace, poise, dignity, humility, and success despite adversity — the true meaning of servant leadership.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
Vrhm: As a Native American woman of Cherokee heritage, I have been a fan of Wilma Mankiller’s for many, many years. I was obviously drawn to the story of a strong female role model — but I was also very humbled and concerned that I might not be able to do Wilma’s story justice. Once I knew that executive producer Gale Anne Hurd
would join me, I couldn’t wait to produce and direct this. This was our third collaboration, and we work so well together.
We both knew we couldn’t make this film without the support of Wilma’s family. When they also came on board, we really knew we had an amazing opportunity for collaboration.
I also feel so very blessed to have our tremendous production team come on board; they, too, wanted to create the best film possible for Wilma. Then, as we delved deep into the research and development phase, I realized how much more there was to her story. I drawn to her legacy as a truly positive example that the world needs to see and understand.
This is the bottom line for me: I am initially always drawn to a story by my own personal feelings, but I’m further drawn in if we can get the right team together and really do it right.
Everything converged in a very positive way to tell this story.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
Vrhm: We realize how Wilma Mankiller’s leadership, consensus building, community organizing, quiet influence, and servant leadership are all qualities that are extremely timely and topically relevant today. I truly believe we can all learn rich and valuable lessons from her story and legacy. I see this film as so much more than a biography; I believe it actually is a wake-up call for positive social change.
Wilma lived with the philosophy of “Ga-Dugi,” which translates to “in a good way.” I want those leaving the theater to refuse the current divisiveness of our country. I want them to demand that our elected leaders return to servant leadership, civility, effectiveness, and kindness towards humanity as a whole. Better yet, I want some to run for office and get leadership back to the way it should be!
I know audiences will be empowered by her story, but I hope that women especially are moved. She was a pioneer in the women’s movement in Indian Country and never gave up. She persevered against all types of discrimination and persecution, all while she was physically very ill. I think we can all find strength from her story. If she could do it, so can we.
Gale’s immense body of narrative film and television projects typically carry the theme of ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. “Mankiller
” is the non-fiction embodiment of that concept. We truly want people to feel empowered and emboldened as they leave.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
Vrhm: Gale and I always seem drawn to stories that focus on a historical timeframe or subjects who have passed on. This therefore require us to locate historical archival footage and photos. Our prior two documentaries were based on WWII and Wwi, respectively. This war footage was much easier to access than “Mankiller
’s” thanks to national archives.
The “meat” of Wilma’s story takes place in the ’60s , ’70s and ’80s. Although these decades were not that long ago, they are light years in the past, technologically speaking. We scoured family, friends’ and co-workers’ materials, as well as the Cherokee Nation, universities, news agencies, and a variety of organizations worldwide. We received materials on VHS and cassette tapes. We shot additional interviews and footage five or six times over four years to try to get everything in the film.
Creatively, we were committed to telling the story from Wilma’s point of view and voice. To capture that, we compiled all available footage of her speaking, as well as home movies and eye-witness testimonies from those who loved and worked with her.
It was a daunting task on our budget — and I’m sure we’ve left something out. But overall, I am so proud of the research team we had and the materials we are able to include.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
Vrhm: We received our initial funding from Vision Maker Media, which funds Native American programming for PBS. Their funding didn’t cover the entire cost of production, so Gale and the Valhalla team launched a Kickstarter campaign.
This was my first experience with crowdfunding, and it was pretty amazing. We fulfilled our remaining funding needs from over 1,000 online supporters. I think I had about ten friends donate, and the rest of the donations mostly came from fans of “The Walking Dead
,” [which Gale executive produces]. They were incredibly supportive. One news article about our Kickstarter campaign asked, “What do Zombies and a Cherokee Chief have in common?” I am very, very grateful to every single donor that helped us complete this incredibly important film.
W&H: What does it mean for you to have your film play at the Laff?
Vrhm: I am in ministry, and my faith is a huge part of my life. I always tell people that God has a plan for us; when one door closes, the right one typically opens. I feel very strongly that the Laff premiere of “Mankiller
” is God’s perfect plan for this film.
The support from this film community regarding women’s issues and minority filmmaking is also overwhelming.
I received my film/theater degree from UCLA, so Los Angeles is always home to me. I couldn’t be happier or more grateful.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
Vrhm: I’ll start with the worst. Another American Indian filmmaker once disagreed with me about collaboration. This person told me that as American Indian filmmakers, we should metaphorically “stay on the reservation” and only make films with and for our core audience of the tribal community and indigenous people. They felt that if we joined forces with “Hollywood,” we would be selling out and compromising our cultural traditions and values.
I am so glad I didn’t listen to that advice, as the collaborations in my film career are incredibly important and meaningful; they have enabled me to tell more stories about our community with a much broader impact.
I have so much great advice that I will try to limit it to just a few examples:
My husband Curt is a former NFL Offensive Lineman. He explained that the lineman mentality is that you will “win” on every play, and every play is designed to make a touchdown. While playing, he never tells himself that he has limits or can’t do it. When he has a bad play, he simply shakes it off and goes back in to score the next time.
When we first met, he couldn’t understand why I felt limited about certain things in my career. I would often say, “As a Native American woman, Hollywood wouldn’t possibly accept me in that role or position.” He absolutely wouldn’t let me think that way. Over the 40 years together, he has taught me to think like a lineman — no limits!
My mother’s favorite motto, “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained,” hangs on my office wall. Gale has really embodied and modeled this philosophy throughout our collaborations.
I will never forget filming “Choctaw Code Talkers
.” I was told that in order to film in Washington, D.C., we would need an Act of Congress passed — and the event we needed to shoot was about a week away. I hung up and thought, “Well, so much for that!” But Gale and her team at Valhalla simply asked, “So, what do we need to do to pass an Act of Congress?” Amazingly, she was successful.
In my personal life, I have also received the most impactful advice from a Bible Study entitled “Love Focused.” It proposes to live one’s life with two goals at the forefront of everything: to love God and to love others. Simply that. It can be extremely hard to implement, but it is incredible when put to practice.
I think part of what I love about Wilma was how much she did truly love others. Not just friends and nice people — everyone.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
Vrhm: I have an incredible husband and three amazing children: Courtney, Derek, and Chelsea. Fortunately, they inherited their dad’s sense of humor and sense of fun. I am more of a Type A workaholic, but they teach me every day; they make me have fun, enjoy life, and relax a little.
I’ve noticed that most of the other female directors I meet are like me: very driven, taking on too much at any given time. There is nothing wrong with being driven by your passion, but we all need to remember to enjoy life and learn how to relax.
My youngest daughter, Chelsea, is a beach volleyball player. During the grueling college recruiting process, everyone else in her league was receiving college scholarship commits and various accolades. She was so solid during this and refused to compare herself to anyone else; she just stayed on the steady course of playing her best. She was practically the last one in her age group to get the commit, but she was eventually recruited and accepted to Stanford University and is currently on their team. God had a plan for her and saved the best for last! It was an exercise in patience and faith.
The mistake so many of us make as women is to constantly look at other’s paths and to compare ourselves, our careers, our finances, our bodies, and even our men with envy. We have to always know our life is unique and that we have our own wonderful path. We can be happy for others and their successes, but we must seek and embrace our own path and timing.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
Vrhm: I live in the world of docs. I was fortunate enough to be asked to judge the DGA Documentary Category for several years, and I absolutely loved watching around 50 docs at the end of each year! So, although there are worthy narrative films, I will give you my top three female-directed documentaries. I can’t pick just one.Laura Poitras
’ “Citizen Four.” Do I really need to say why on this one? For a filmmaker to take such risks and put herself in danger for a story that is so relevant and important for us all to hear — wow!Lucy Walker
’s “The Crash Reel
.” Mine is a family of athletes, and I love documentaries that follow athletics. I was particularly drawn to Walker’s storytelling and access, which involved 20 years of filming! The audience really feels like they are part of Kevin Pearce
’s life. She ends the film with what is, in essence, a call for action and change regarding helmet regulations. So impactful. Brava, Lucy!Liz Garbus
’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?” This film resonated with all of us as we were making “Mankiller
.” Garbus captures the talent and beauty of Nina Simone
. Simultaneously, she takes us on the ever so epic and sad journey of a life dedicated to civil rights and justice for the marginalized. The archival footage, old flyers, and personal handwritten notes were really impactful. I love Simone’s music, so this film was just pure joy to watch, even though it left me melancholy — as it should. I am definitely a Garbus fan!
W&H: There have been significant conversations over the last couple of years about increasing the amount of opportunities for women directors yet the numbers have not increased. Are you optimistic about the possibilities for change? Share any thoughts you might have on this topic.
Vrhm: I am absolutely optimistic about positive change in our industry, and part of the “Wilma Mankiller life motto” is to never, never give up. Sexism still exists, but things are changing — and women are at the forefront of the shift.
I consider Gale a role model; she is clearly one of the most prolific, powerful, and successful producers in Hollywood. Yet, I notice that she typically doesn’t refer to herself as a‘woman producer or a female filmmaker — she is simply a very, very good producer. She achieved her success by tons of hard work, long hours, perseverance, talent, dedication, and intelligence. She is also a very strong advocate and mentor. She helps others. My own career as a filmmaker wouldn’t be where it is without her.
We simply have to keep making good films and telling impactful stories. If we do this, nothing can hold us back. I realize the numbers in mainstream studio film and episodic television are pretty abysmal, but I do see more positive change in independents and docs — the female voice in those areas strong and increasing.
Laff 2017 Women Directors: Meet Valerie Red-Horse Mohl
” was originally published in Women and Hollywood on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.