We sat down with Valerie Red-Horse Mohl to discuss her latest film MANKILLER, produced by Gale Anne Hurd with Vision Maker Media, which chronicles the life of Wilma Mankiller who humbly defied the odds to fight injustice and give a voice to the voiceless. Wilma Mankiller overcame rampant sexism and personal challenges to emerge as the Cherokee Nation’s first female Principal Chief in 1985. Valerie also shares her thoughts on the current political climate, women in society, and the struggles Native Cherokees face today.
Tell us about your background, what drove you to become a filmmaker and start your own company?
When I was in middle school we had a drug problem and the administration brought in many presentations during an anti-drug week; they had speakers, law enforcement officers, pamphlets and brochures - all that was very ineffective. Then finally they brought in a film that was so emotionally charged I saw it change lives and drive students to become clean and sober. I was only 13 at the time but made a decision that I wanted to become involved in the film genre. I later chose to attend UCLA because of its film/theater program and launched my film company after getting out into the industry and seeing a lack of accurate portrayals of Native Americans.
Why is it important to you to tell stories from indigenous perspectives?
Filmmaking is all about developing strong characters, whether narrative or non-fiction. Coming alongside a lead character’s journey often helps the audience understand that person’s point of view and community perspective in much broader ways. Unfortunately, in mainstream media very few protagonist lead characters are indigenous. We tend to be the supporting characters or the subject matters being examined but not the lead characters whose point of view are front and center. My goal as a filmmaker is to shed light on important indigenous stories that may be buried or otherwise neglected by history. Working with Gale Anne Hurd has allowed me to bring these stories to a broader audience.
How did this project originate? What did you know about Wilma Mankiller before taking on this film project, and what were some surprises for you?
After Wilma passed away in 2010, her widower Charlie Soap and friend Kristina Kiehl decided to make a narrative indie feature film about one chapter in her life and leadership. When this came to our attention, Shirley Sneve, my contact at Vision Maker Media for PBS and I put our heads together and felt there also needed to be a non-fiction documentary about Wilma’s life. But I was also very humbled and concerned that I might not be able to do Wilma’s story justice; then once I knew Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd would join me again for our third project I couldn’t wait to produce and direct this, as we work so well together. Gale Anne Hurd is one of the entertainment industry's most esteemed producers of Academy and Emmy Award-winning programs. She is currently an Executive Producer on The Walking Dead, which reigns as the most watched scripted cable drama, as well as the AMC companion series, Fear the Walking Dead. But we both knew we couldn’t make this film without the support of Wilma’s family so when they also came on board together with our fantastic production team, we really knew we had an amazing opportunity for collaboration.
As a Native American woman of Cherokee heritage, I have been a fan of Wilma Mankiller’s for many, many years and was obviously drawn to the story of a strong woman role model. Then as we delved deep into the research & development phase, I realized how much more there was to Wilma’s story. I was drawn to her legacy as a truly positive example that our current leaders need to see and understand. Although I had no idea when we started this project in 2011 that the world would evolve into such a sad place of divisiveness and negativity in politics, it truly seems as if Wilma’s message is being seen and heard through this film at a time when her voice is sorely needed.
Some surprises were our similarities… once I started researching and really delving into who she was and her background it was almost eerie how many similarities there are between our lives. Her father was full blood Cherokee as was mine — her mother is 100% Caucasian as was mine. Her family was relocated to San Francisco on the Bureau of Indian Affairs program as was my father. I was born near SF because of this. Wilma never used labels but was a uniter, I hate labels and try to also be a uniter. These are just a few but the connection I feel is uncanny.
Did you ever have the opportunity to meet Wilma? If not, what would you have wanted to ask her/talk to her about?
I never did have the opportunity to meet Wilma but feel that I got to know her extremely well through the process of making the film.
I would love to have talked to her while she was alive and would have asked her about her perspectives on economic development and the future generations of Native Americans. She had a holistic sustainable outlook for our American Indian communities and brought these sensibilities to her communities. I would love her perspective on solutions because I feel we need to pay attention to our future and many of our reservation areas are at risk.
For students who have never heard of Wilma Mankiller, can you talk about why she is so significant and position her within Native American history, American history and the civil rights movement?
For students who have never heard of Wilma I think she is significant for many reasons. Now is the time more than ever in our history for people to become involved in their local community and the broader community and the Nation. We cannot sit back and complain about politics and policies and divisiveness; we must be part of the solution. I truly believe that the solution to unity in moving forward will come from our younger people. However many people believe that in order to make a difference and run for office you have to have money or connections or be in some sort of position of power. Wilma did not have money or power; in fact at one point she lived in her car. She was also very ill most of her life. She had to fight racism and sexism; she was viewed as someone with nothing and yet she made a huge and significant difference; her contributions continue to be felt today. Her story should empower people to get involved and make a difference regardless of their current standing or position in life. If she could do it so can we!
What are your goals for the film? What kind of dialogues do you think MANKILLER will create?
My goals for this film are many. If it simply educates and enlightens that's huge! But I also hope that it encourages and empowers. I'd like to see it serve as a call to action. For example, when we screened in Washington DC we saw an increase in the amount of women signing up to run for political office… that's the kind of response I love to see! I also think there is important dialogue around servant leadership, a return to civility, bipartisan leadership, listening to opposing viewpoints and incorporating solutions that include everyone's points of view.
How do you think Wilma Mankiller’s life and legacy are relevant to audiences today? Can you talk about Feminists and Native Americans in particular?
Audiences are calling for better leadership politically and I think Wilma's message is one that begs for us to return to her style of servant leadership. Wilma was an advocate for the feminist movement as well as an advocate for Native Americans, but if you look closely at her life she really was an advocate for all human beings. She loved and respected people and I feel we've lost that somewhere in our political leadership. She was effective and she was able to bring about change. She did not back down but she did it with quiet stealth and respect.
Can you talk about the current political climate, women’s leadership and government and what lessons we can learn from Mankiller’s leadership and legacy?
I think the current political climate is simply sad in the divisiveness; Wilma brought people together; she really dispelled using any labels. In today's climate somehow the idea that being mean i— as a sign of strength — is the prevailing thought, which is so wrong. Wilma showed strength and success and effectiveness but was never mean spirited, she always operated with kindness and civility.
Can you talk about some of the most pressing issues and concerns for Cherokee people and Native Americans today?
The Cherokee Tribe and Cherokee people are great role models. They have achieved a lot and much of their accomplishments are based on the work that Wilma launched. I will speak to the broader concerns and issues in Indian country as a whole. On many reservations we still struggle with the cycles of poverty and the related issues such as substance abuse, unemployment, suicide, depression, malnutrition, etc. We must address economic development and healing our communities. I believe there are solutions but not enough resources. One of my goals is to bring people together to bring the solution providers together with the areas of need. So often I will discuss a remote area of a reservation where there is great need and many people I speak to say they've never heard of it; basically they have no idea.
You’ve worked before with Executive Producer Gale Anne Hurd. Can you talk about your collaboration style and give some examples of what makes you such a successful team?
Gale and I have a lot in common in terms of our work ethic. We both are entrepreneurs, we get things done and are pretty demanding on ourselves. We don't sleep a lot, we don't take many vacations and we tend to be very focused. We also are very passionate and deeply concerned about the issues of the world around us. Neither one of us feels comfortable sitting around and being apathetic; we feel the need to make a difference. All of our documentaries have shed light on stories that have been neglected by the history books, people who have been marginalized in some way. However Gale and I also have very separate lives. I am an investment banker when I'm not making documentaries and she produces incredibly successful television shows and we have the utmost respect for each other's various endeavors. Other than with my husband, I've never had such a successful business partnership as I have experienced with Gale. I owe her a great deal; without her support none of these documentaries would have ever been possible.
Anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t discussed?
This is my third feature documentary film - I have done several shorts - and probably our most powerful. I have spent a lot of time at film festivals with fellow documentary filmmakers and it always frustrates me that we all struggle so with small budgets and grovel for grants to make films that are so very important; films that change lives, have social impact and raise awareness are at the bottom of the financial “food chain” in the film industry. I truly hope to see that change and I think audiences have that control. As audiences consume and demand more non-fiction content, hopefully that will evolve.