When Noah Begay was a junior at San Juan County’s Navajo Mountain High School in 2017, becoming the subject of a documentary was the last thing he expected.
The community of Navajo Mountain, located on the northern Navajo Nation south of Lake Powell, is in the most remote town in Utah, and the high school, which Begay attended with just 29 fellow students, is one of the most isolated public schools in the Lower 48.
“Why would people want to watch [a film about] us?” Begay recalls thinking. “The whole school is shy.”
But when Sanpete County-based filmmaker Jared Jakins read a short article in The Salt Lake Tribune in March of 2017 about the Navajo Mountain High School’s robotics team, he immediately started planning a trip to the area.
Jakins had recently finished co-directing a short film about Francisco Llerena, a Peruvian shepherd in the Great Basin Desert. The largely silent, 20-minute film currently hosted by The Atlantic showcased the isolation and beauty the migrant herders face through the Utah winters, and he was looking for other stories to tell in the state.
“I was on a kick where I was really interested in trying to find very remote, isolated places and communities,” he said. “That article just kind of clicked.”
Jakins reached out to Gary Rock, the principal at the high school, and made a visit to Navajo Mountain with film producer Hunter Phillips to explore making a film with a “competition-driven narrative” about the robotics team. Jakins ended up staying in the community for the better part of a year, living with his family in an empty apartment owned by the San Juan School District.
The final product had little to do with robotics. Instead, “Scenes from the Glittering World,” a 80-minute documentary that’s being screened free online by the Utah Film Center on June 29, follows three Navajo Mountain High School students — Begay, Ilii Neang, and Granite Sloan — through a school year and into the summer while capturing the joys, beauty and hardships of living in Navajo Mountain.
Jakins said as the film’s focus shifted during production to following the story lines of the three students, he hired them to both participate in and help shape the project.
“A big conversation from the beginning was being an outsider because we knew that there would be some challenges to get it right,” he said. “Off camera, we’d talk about what [the students] wanted to shoot, and that would serve as a springboard.”
“When they first started filming around the school,” Neang, a freshman at the time, said, “I would try my best to get out of range so I wouldn’t show up on camera.”
Eventually, the shyness faded for each of the students. “[Jakins] would come to my grandma’s house,” said Neang, who began to show her gregarious side as the project progressed. “I’d show him around to all the animals. I got more comfortable, and I’d start rambling.”
The result is a documentary so unscripted and immersed in the everyday activities of the Navajo Mountain teenagers, that it seems at times to offer a direct window into the community. The students haul water, tend to livestock and play video games.
To fight back boredom, Begay rides bikes with his brother over slickrock where they accidentally drop a bike into a small canyon and have to bushwhack to retrieve it. Sloan, also a freshman at the time of production, takes advantage of a snowstorm by sledding down a hill in plastic bags, metal mixing bowls and trash can lids. Neang and her younger brother tease each other until they are both laughing so hard they’re gasping for air.
But the film also shows viewers difficult conversations at home and at the school where teachers and administrators debate how to help failing students and maximize stretched-thin resources.
As the film began to take shape, Jakins and Phillips collaborated with Roni Jo Draper (Yurok), a former high school teacher and current education professor at Brigham Young University, who joined the team as a producer. Draper also helped facilitate a cultural advisory board for the project.
“Part of my work as an academic has been to think about, ‘How do I tell stories about the life of schools?’” she said. “I look at documentary films as a way to share stories for even wider audiences about the life of young people or teachers ... and to inform people about what is possible, or what is problematic, in schools.”
While the goal was never to be didactic with the film, Draper said, she hopes viewers will take away a deeper understanding of the dynamics that can come into play with the way public school curriculum is taught in Native American communities, referring to a scene in the film were a non-indigenous teacher talks to his class about the settling of the American West.
“I hope,” she said, “when people are watching they ask, ‘What is the experience for Indigenous kids in the school and is it the experience that we would want for Indigenous kids?”
But equally important, Draper said, is the film’s emphasis on letting young people tell their own stories. “I love that we are giving space for young people to say their words. … We don’t often trust young people just to share their lives with us, and I think we need to do more of that.”
Part of the story the students tell has to do with deep challenges, growing pains and sorrow. Sloan and his family grapple with the loss of Sloan’s younger brother. Neang works to find her place in the world as a member of the LGBTQ community. Begay, who graduates from high school in the film and since has started a firewood cutting business with his father, begins to think about how to help provide for his parents and grandparents.
When it came time to watch the final version earlier this year, Begay, Neang and Sloan said they were nervous, but all three said they were pleased with how it turned out.
“It was pretty cool because I had never seen myself on film like that,” Sloan said.
Neang said she missed parts of the dialogue because she and her family were teasing each other so much when they appeared in various scenes.
“The film explained very well what it’s like living here,” Begay said. “We have fun.”
-- Visit UtahFilmCenter.org to sign up for a free screening of “Scenes from the Glittering World” on Tuesday, June 29 and a post-film Q&A with director Jared Jakins, moderated by KUER RadioWest host Doug Fabrizio. Tickets are limited.
Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.