First film an uphill climb that results in a crowning success

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Erica Scharf’s life changed when she first visited the Land of Enchantment. And she’s grateful for that.

“I grew up in New York and had never seen this area,” she says during a recent interview. “When I first arrived here, I was blown away by the state and its breathtaking views. From the red earth to the mesas that grow into the amazingly blue skies, it just changed my world.”

That was Scharf’s first trip to the state – and she ended up staying a while.

“I came out here to make my first film and tell a story that makes an impact,” she says. “It took a while to get it done, but it’s finally ready.”

After nearly four years, Scharf’s documentary, “Up Heartbreak Hill,” will premiere at the KiMo Theatre at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 25. The documentary also will have its national broadcast premiere at 9 p.m. Thursday, July 26, as part of PBS’ series “POV.” It will air on Channel 5 in Albuquerque.

The documentary features a trio of young Americans who are struggling to be both Native and modern. The Navajo teens, Thomas and Tamara and Gabby, are athletic or academic stars at Navajo Pine High School in Navajo near the Arizona border. All three are torn between the lure of brighter futures elsewhere and the ties that bind them to home.

Thomas, who sports a red Mohawk, is a perfect representation of a distance runner – long, lean and he moves with an effortless grace. He is one of the state’s premier runners.

Tamara, who also is a distance runner, is a math whiz, president of the senior class and a top contender for valedictorian.

Gabby, an aspiring photographer, was twice accepted to summer arts programs across the country but failed to attend. After briefly dabbling in drugs and alcohol, she is now determined to stay clean.

“For these teens, home is an impoverished town on the Navajo reservation,” Scharf explains. “Leaving means separating from family, tradition and the land that has been theirs for generations. We were there to see their struggles within themselves of either remaining traditional or breaking it.”

Scharf says the film’s title serves a dual purpose.

She says “heartbreak hill” is an infamous ascending pass on the local cross-country course as well as a reference to a hill in the Boston Marathon.

“The first part represents their battle to get up that hill, literally,” she explains. “The second part serves as a metaphor for each one of their struggles. Getting to a resolution for them did have a lot of heartbreak.”

Scharf says she was drawn to Navajo Pine and the teens’ stories because of the struggle that they were going through. She says that while filming for nearly six months, she was allowed to stay on campus at Navajo Pine.

“I wanted to show how each teen interacted with their parents and community,” she says. “All of them were excellent athletes and students and had the world in their hand. They just had to make the first step. We were out with the kids every morning for their runs and late into the night.”

Scharf was inspired to make the film because she, like many viewers around the country, wasn’t familiar with life on the Navajo Nation.

“My suburban New York high school had not a single Native American kid in a student body of 2,000, and the only reference to modern-day Native society I can recall pertained to casinos,” she explains. “Almost everything I learned was presented within the context of ‘long ago.’ ”

“Up Heartbreak Hill” is Scharf’s first foray into documentary film, and she’s already had some beginner’s luck. The film has been accepted into nearly a dozen film festivals and was selected to be part of the PBS series “POV.”

“When I got the email telling me that I was going to be part of the series, I nearly cried,” she explains. “I knew that I had made an important and intimate look at Native American life. My biggest thing was getting an audience to see it, and now it’s going to air nationally.”

Although the documentary was filmed in 2008-09, Scharf says she still keeps in contact with Thomas, Tamara and Gabby. The trio will be in attendance with her to participate in a question-and-answer session after the screening at the KiMo.

“They are success stories no matter how you look at it,” she says. “They have all moved on and will tell their story since the documentary at the session. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to touch their lives and tell their story.”

The film was also produced by Chris Eyre, who is the chair of Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s Moving Image Arts Department in Santa Fe.

SEND ME YOUR TIPS: If you know of a movie filming in the state, or are curious about one, email film@ABQjournal.com. Follow me on Twitter at @agomezART.

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