Photo by Idris+Tony
Billy Luther explores different facets of his heritage in his documentaries. His latest looks at a little known celebration of the Laguna Pueblo, Grab Day. [26:38]
Billy Luther: My father's Laguna and Hopi and my mother's full Navajo. They worked for the railroad so we moved around quite a lot growing up. I didn't grow up on a reservation but every summer I would split my summer at different res with my different grandparents and that, I think, was really unique. I loved that experience. I loved having those different cultural upbringing. So my first film, Miss Navajo, it's about a beauty pageant, a 50-year-old beauty pageant where contestants slaughter sheep instead of wear bathing suits. It's really about tradition and culture. This film is about an experience that I had remembered growing up with, the throw.
Jo Reed: That was Billy Luther, he is the director of the documentary film, GRAB
Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works, I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
Billy Luther grew up celebrating GRAB day with his father’s family in the Laguna Pueblo. Grab is a 300-year-old tradition; it involves throwing food and gifts from the rooftops to members of the community who gather below. Grab day is a time for families to come together and give thanks for abundance and pray for renewal. The GRAB begins with the sprinkling of water on the people gathered, following by the throwing of traditionally-baked bread. Then, basket upon basket of food, toys, paper goods, all manners of gifts are thrown from the roof. For families that throw, the preparation is intense, usually taking months. Enter Billy Luther. The filmmaker followed three families during the year-long preparation straight through to GRAB day itself. The result is not only the documenting of a little known festival, but it gives an intimate look into the lives of the contemporary Laguna. I saw Luther’s documentary, titled, appropriately enough, GRAB at All Roads Film Festival which is a project of National Geographic. All Roads provides a platform for the work of indigineous and minority filmmakers from around the world.
Billy Luther’s documentary marks the first time GRAB day has been filmed. I spoke to Billy Luther at the All Roads Festival. Here’s our conversation
Let’s hear an excerpt from GRAB….here’s the set up: it’s GRAB day…the camera tracks all three families as the heads of each stand on the individual rooftops and give a traditional laguna blessing before they begin the throw. Parker Posey, the narrator of the film, translates the invocation into English.
Jo Reed: Tell me about your film, "Grab". What is Grab about?
Billy Luther: Well, Grab is about an over 300 year event that happens usually during the summer months honoring a saint of the Catholic church but also a family member who may be named after that saint. So the community comes together and helps honor the saint and also the person who is named after. It really is about giving and giving prayers out to the community and thanking the community for being part of their family because, really the pueblos are just, you know, they're so small that you're really connected.
Jo Reed: The way people give thanks is by taking items, bringing it to the roof of their house and bestowing it.
Billy Luther: And distributing it, yeah. And it really was something that I grew up with when I would visit my grandparents during the summer. It was a unique experience. I remember going back to San Diego and I remember one time a teacher asked, you know, "What did you do on your summer break?" I told the class this and they just laughed. They didn't understand it. And I think the teacher really wanted me to explain it more. She was, like, "Well, is it like a birthday?" I said, "It's more like Christmas. It's more like Christmas. You're giving gifts." I just remember catching Cracker Jacks, soda cans, you know, even being hit by a few, but it was just a fun event. But I never asked what it was about or why we did this. It was just something that I took part in. I think when I was doing the research, I was asking a lot of youth about the origins and the history of the Grab and many of them couldn't answer that. So I thought, this is really important. I think this film really could help the youth in capturing part of that experience. Also, I was talking to many of the elders as well and the elders- I didn't know early on that women weren't allowed to join the Grab when it first began. So I think, for me, this whole experience was really about learning about the history of it but also honoring it.
Jo Reed: Let's be specific – your film looks at a particular Laguna Pueblo, which is in New Mexico. What part of New Mexico?
Billy Luther: It's central New Mexico, about an hour west of Albuquerque.
Jo Reed: As in much of the world, it's a confluence of native traditions and Catholicism coming together and finding a way to live together. Explain how that manifests itself in the Grab.
Billy Luther: Each village has a Catholic church with a saint that's related to a specific saint. And I think that what I found was fascinating with the wars between the Pueblo religion and the Catholic church was really interesting to me because I walked away with it, realizing that there's two beliefs that can live together and honor and respect each other because the feast days, the Grab days are all part of Pueblo culture. And I remember when I was touring with Miss Navajo, my first film, I would go to many, many film festivals. There were so many films about war, many films about war. They're usually tied in with beliefs and religion. So, when I was making this film, I thought, it was really fascinating to me that two beliefs can live side by side together and respect each other. That's what I came away with after the film. I was, like, "Wow, this is really something that I didn't really think about early on but then, when I walked away from it, it was really fascinating."
Jo Reed: A good unintended consequence.
Billy Luther: Yes.
Jo Reed: This was the part I was a little bit uncertain about, is it a feast day associated with a Pueblo church or is it a feast day associated with your particular family?
Billy Luther: The feast day is celebration of the saint for that village. So, for instance, they're saying Anne and that's Seama Village. That day if you're named Anne or your middle name, you know, have an Anne, you're usually...
Jo Reed: In your name.
Billy Luther: Yeah, your name.
Jo Reed: Then you throw?
Billy Luther: And that usually happens during sundown, before the saint is- because, during the feast, the saint statue is brought out into the plaza because there's dances, there's traditional dances throughout the day. Before sundown, the saint is returned. So usually, at that time, that's when people start honking their horns and you get the announcement of there's Grabs happening.
Jo Reed: everybody should go out and see your film but, as somebody who's just seen it, I have to say, and I would love to have you describe a little bit, everything that goes into throwing.
Billy Luther: Yeah, it takes about a year, I think, to collect these items. I think the film, we follow three families, about a year, a little less than a year. There's a lot of buying items, a lot of trips to Costco and Sam's Club and usually there's a room in the house that's just for these items. Also, family members, maybe your neighbors or people in the community will come by and drop stuff off as well. It really becomes this community. I think the film shows that. I hope you see it, it's a community working together to make this happen. I remember we threw one year and it was really, really cool.
Jo Reed: Tell me about it.
Billy Luther: We went, I don't know how many trips to Costco and I remember just asking my grandfather, when he was still living at the time, you know, I was, like, "Wow, this is so fun." He was, like, "Well, when I was a young boy, it was much different. We grew our items. We made our items. The things that we threw—it wasn't a trip to these stores. Everything was homemade, home grown, and people just don't do that any more." I think the only item that is made is the bread that's usually tossed in the beginning and, as you see in the film, the pottery. I think that, when you prepare yourself to do this, it's a commitment. It's a lot of money but also a lot of work. We saw family members donating items and I think the Grab usually lasts almost 45 minutes because you have so many items in laundry baskets. And you're tired. You're out of breath after throwing it for 45 minutes. <laughs>
Jo Reed: This is the first time a Grab has been filmed. How did you gain access?
Billy Luther: It really was a lot of calls, a lot of emails and letters that I wrote to the governor and the pueblo of Laguna. There has been filming on the res for high, profiled Hollywood films, and for me being Pueblo kind of opened that door. When I was writing all these letters and these phone calls, I was telling them, "This is what I'm going to show. I'm not going to be exploiting my own community. I'm not going to be filming ceremonies that are sacred" because the film is Grab. It's about this event. It's not about anything else. I'm not going to go into the kivas and film. And it also helped that my father's childhood friend was the governor at the time. I told him, like I said, when I was doing the interviews, I was asking a lot of the youth about the origins of the Grab and many of them couldn't answer. So I used also that as an example in my treatment and proposals to the community. So we got the okay. It went off, I mean, everybody, I think, in the community was excited about this film because they really felt it was important to document because it's never been documented before. I think, when we were doing the research, we were trying to find a photo of the Grab. We looked everywhere. We came to D.C., we went to the Pueblos, asking everybody, "Who has photographs of this?" We couldn't find one single photograph. I think that, when we filmed it, we just had this high, all of the crew, we were filming something that was really like, a first. And we knew that going in. The last time we filmed it really was, wow, this is history.
Jo Reed: It’s amazing. Ok, as you said you follow three families. Josie and Augustine, Rebecca and Dell. How did you choose them?
Billy Luther: Well, because I did an open call. I really wanted to meet many people and these three families, I thought, were very unique. Josie and her husband, Augustine, have four children. And they range from 10 to 18. I was, like, well, this family really loves each other and I think, the connection that I felt when I met them, I was, like, this is the family that I want to follow. So they were one of the first...
Jo R eed: That was a family I wanted to be a part of.
Billy Luther: So they were the first that I did choose to follow. And then Rebecca, you know, she was unemployed. She's a single mother with a daughter, a teenage daughter. And she also said that she wanted to kind of return to the old days of growing her items. I thought, well, that's really fascinating. Let's capture that. And then Dell, who lives off the reservation, who comes back every year for this. When he told me his family all returns home for this event, I was, like, wow, I want to capture this. I want to capture your family coming together. So I thought, well, these three families are very different from each other. They each celebrate it differently and prepare for it differently. So those three families were it. I t was important for the three families to just have this different experience and go on that journey with them.
Jo Reed: You know, it's hard to talk about how much stuff is thrown. It’s hard to conceptualize it unless you see it. I know laundry baskets are filled with food and with gifts, I and thought okay four or five laundry baskets you know, that would be a lot of stuff. I was not prepared for the fact that there is a room filled with laundry baskets, that’s filled with all this food and gifts…
Billy Luther: Yeah. When you saw in the film, that was one of the first times that I saw that, what do you call that, that the families all putting, you know, each family...
Jo Reed: Like the fireman chain?
Billy Luther: Yes. From that room to the rooftop. There's people handing. That was, like, oh, my gosh, I've never seen anything like that. It was such a great thing to capture on film was, like, this family all working together to put these baskets on the rooftop. It is a lot, a lot of stuff. Like I said, 45 minutes is a long time to be throwing stuff off your roof.
Jo Reed: It's also a wonderful time, as you say in the film, for families to come together. One of the families said, "We might not get together for thanksgiving, we might not get together for Christmas but people fly in if they're throwing. If the family's throwing." Josephine and Augustine they had a feast as well so they had 50 family and friends there.
Billy Luther: Yeah. Each family does have a feast. That is a process, too, so you're balancing the throw but also you're balancing feeding all these people coming into your house. We were filming, I think, around the clock. We were there, like I said, 4:30 in the morning, sometimes leaving at midnight, just capturing these families cooking, chopping things up or taking things out of the containers to put in their throw. So there was so much to do, so much to film. I mean, I think we also helped a little bit when we put the cameras down. We helped sweep, we helped clean the house with them because, I mean, it was a lot of work. It really was, I think, an experience that I don't ever want to film this again. <laughs> I'm glad I had this experience but, man, it was a lot of work because we were shooting but then, when we weren't shooting, we were helping clean and feed people who were visiting.
Jo Reed: Let’s hear an excerpt from Grab. Here’s the set up. It’s now Grab day. But before the throwing begins the heads of all three of the families stand on their roofs and give the traditional Laguna blessing to the people gathered below. Parker Posey, who’s the narrator of the film, translates the invocation into English.
Up with the Blessing….
Parker Posey: This is for you. Thank you for your prayers, your thoughts, and your blessings. Everything you take here enjoy it. Don’t let anything go to waste.
Parker Posey: And to those who continue to return each year your support is not forgotten. (fades into wind).
Celebrate your life your family and each other.
Fade into Billy…
Billy Luther: I'm interested in telling these stories that are unique about our culture but I think a lot of people can identify with Grab because many other cultures - they might not have a Grab or a throw but they'd have something similar to that and there’s parallels in the cultures. So I think that, when I made the film, I was, like, I think people can go home, I hope they can go home and really see that there's similarities between the different cultures.
Jo Reed: Why film? What drew you to film?
Billy Luther: I didn't want to work behind a desk. That's the one thing that I knew that I didn't want to do. I just remember my parents would come home. My dad, he was an engineer so he had an interesting job, he was driving these trains around. My mother worked behind a desk. I remember one of the things is that she took me to go see "9 to 5" with Dolly Parton. She was, like, "Oh, my gosh, that is so me" and her two friends working behind a desk. I was, like, "Oh," and I just remember, I think, seeing my mother-- and also my grandparents, my grandparents would watch Dynasty and Dallas and I would follow these stories and just be, like, "Oh, my god" and saw how I think my family would react to these stories and laugh. So I think that was something in me that was, like, "Oh, my god, I see how my family's reacting to these" and so that's what I wanted to kind of give. So I was always doing something like writing a play.
Billy Luther: I didn't want to work behind a desk. That's the one thing that I knew that I didn't want to do. I just remember my parents would come home. My dad, he was an engineer so he had an interesting job, he was driving these trains around. My mother worked behind a desk. I remember one of the things is that she took me to go see "Nine to Five" with Dolly Parton. She was, like, "Oh, my gosh, that is so me" and her two friends working behind a desk. I was, like, "Oh," and I just remember, I think, seeing my mother- and also my grandparents, my grandparents would watch Dynasty and Dallas and I would follow these stories and just be, like, "Oh, my god" and saw how I think my family would react to these stories and laugh. So I think that was something in me that was, like, "Oh, my god, I see how my family's reacting to these" and so that's what I wanted to kind of give. So I was always doing something like writing a play, singing or just something having to do with art. And I just knew at an early age this is what I want to do. I want to make films. I want to be on a location. I want to give an audience that kind of enjoyment that I had.
Jo Reed: It's a tough business.
Billy Luther: <laughs> Yeah.
Jo Reed: And you kind of picked a tough aspect of a tough business in documentaries.
Billy Luther: Yes. Documentaries about Native Americans.
Jo Reed: Americans.
Billy Luther: <laughs> No, it is...
Jo Reed: You're out there. <laughs>
Billy Luther: No, it is tough, and when I made my first doc feature, "Miss Navajo," I remember in the middle of shooting, I was like "What did I get myself into? Why am I doing this? Why didn't I do what people usually do and get a job and work nine to five?" But I see it as a tough business, but then I also see it as a rewarding experience. I think that I love going into meetings and pitches and writing proposals to various grants because I just push these unique stories out, and the creativity is there because I'm writing my proposal. Many people don't like that, because it's just dry. But for me, I always put my voice into whatever I'm writing and make it fun, interesting, because I've read many proposals, and they are-- a lot of them are very dry and just statistics and hit you with a lot of facts here. But for this, I just always make it fun, and it must work, because I do get grants. <laughs>
Jo Reed: Yeah, you do, and you get great grants. We're sitting in National Geographic. You're part of the All Roads Festival. You've been affiliated with Sundance.
Billy Luther: Yeah.
Jo Reed: You've got a grant from Ford, did you not?
Billy Luther: Yeah, Ford Fellowship, yep, mm-hmm.
Jo Reed: And Creative Capital.
Billy Luther: Yeah, Creative Capital. There's a lot of prestigious and competitive grants that I received.
Jo Reed: And let's give a shout out to NAPT...
Jo Reed: ...because I've interviewed Shirley Sneve.
Billy Luther: Native American Public Telecommunic-- for this, for Grab, they were one of the largest and one of the first funders of this film. And I think they were really intrigued in this story because it was the first time that cameras were allowed to go into this community, and I think that they really appreciated my previous film, "Miss Navajo," and really wanted to work on this project.
Jo Reed: And then there's also the back-end part, Billy, which is distribution.
Billy Luther: That's the toughest, but it also changes, distribution, because right now you have technology. You can watch stuff on the Net. Many people choose to self-distribute their films. But for me, "Miss Navajo" and "Grab," I get Corporation for Public Broadcasting money, so these projects will be seen on PBS. And I think this is a perfect place for both films, especially on PBS. There's not that many Native American content on their channels, which is quite shocking, because they're pretty diverse. You know, there's a lot of work that still needs to be done with Native American films, but I love having that struggle. That keeps me working harder. I think that there's many native filmmakers out there, and our work is seen at usually the same venues. Sundance is a great supporter of native works. So just keep making the films, and hopefully there's going to be change, but also there's an audience for it. There's an audience for it, and I think with Grab, I noticed at Sundance every screening that we had was sold-out, and there was probably maybe one or two Native Americans in each audience. It was non-native audiences, because there's a need and there's an audience out there for it.
Jo Reed: And what about being part of a festival like this one, All Roads, which is films from around the world?
Billy Luther: All Roads is the funnest, I think, and also one of the best places to come, because I see films that I probably wouldn't get to see. There's films from all over the world, and I don't think there's a definition you can say about the films that they select, because every year it's so unique, so diverse, and these indigenous stories that are told by emerging filmmakers, and some are established. But I think that it's such a unique selection of films that they have that I just feel like "Wow, this is something to be here," and also to have your film played at National Geographic is a highlight on anybody's resume. <laughs>
Jo Reed: You know, it strikes me about film that it is collaborative every step of the way...
Jo Reed: ...from soup to nuts.
Billy Luther: Yeah, it is, not just making your film but also after your film. How do you distribute your film? And you're always doing work. Even at film festivals, you're always working, because you're always asking "What's your next project? You know, what's next?" So you come here to show your film, but you're also working, so, yeah, it is collaboration. And the thing that I found that was unique with this time I'm here is that-- I also had still photographers on the project, and once we got the okay, I was like "Okay, I'm bringing three cameramen, videographers. I'm bringing three still photographers, and we're going to shoot the mother out of this," because this is like-- and we had a time, like 13, 14 months, this date to this date, and that's all you can do. And once we had that permit, we shot. We shot everything we could, just because it was a first. And for us, it was so rewarding. The still photographers, they also captured things that aren't in the film. I mean, you saw snapshots in the film of their work, but I think it was after the filming was done that we were like "Wow." I knew I was going to use those photos in the film, but I just had a phone conference with the photographers saying "Let's get an exhibit together. Let's get a photo exhibit. These photographs are beautiful." And we selected, I think, a little over 50 photographs for an exhibit, we wrote a proposal, and we asked National Museum of the American Indian in New York if they had space, and they wanted to look at the work. They saw it. We got a call, I think, the next day. They said "Yes, we want to exhibit your work." So we had to raise money for that as well, and we went to Kickstarter and raised over $25,000 in, I think, two weeks to get these photographs printed, framed, and it opened when we premiered at Sundance, the photo exhibit, in January this year. And it was going to be just for, I think, four weeks, but they extended it to July because it was just really popular, and people were always commenting. To see something that's refreshing, contemporary native photographs, stuck out. Like I said, we raised our money on Kickstarter, and we got it together, and I think it was a great extension of the film, showing these photographs. Now it's at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in New Mexico until November, and we also have selected works here, 10 photos here in National Geographic All Roads Festival. That's going to be on display until November. So I think that was unexpected, but that was just something that we felt "Wow, it's such a great exhibit, and people need to see it."
Jo Reed: Okay. Dare I ask what's next?
Billy Luther: <laughs> Yeah, I'm working on my third tribe, the Hopi, and I really want to focus on social networking, what the effects are of maintaining your culture through social networking, by following people who live off the res, Hopis who live off the res and on the res who use social networking. Does it help maintain or does it hurt the culture? So I really want to focus, and one of my early inspirations in film was "Koyaanisqatsi," and I think that was in '82, and that's a Hopi word for "Life out of balance." I really want to do a little play on that and follow technology and tell a story through social networking with the Hopi community.
Jo Reed: I look forward to it, Billy. Thank you so much.
Billy Luther: Thank you.
Jo Reed: It was really a pleasure.
Jo Reed: Thank you.
That was documentary filmmaker Billy Luther, we were talking about his latest film, GRAB.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from GRAB, narrated by Parker Posey, used courtesy of Billy Luther;
Excerpt from the soundtrack of GRAB, composed by DAVID BENJAMIN STEINBERG, used courtesy of Evolution Music Partners.
Special thanks to David Low and Francene Blythe and Carrie Engel from National Geographic.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U—just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. Next week, 2011 NEA Opera Honoree, John Conklin.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.