Life on the Navajo Nation is remote and rough.
Electricity doesn’t work at times.
Water ebbs and flows, depending on resources.
There are 17 million acres that make up the Navajo Nation. The boundaries span across northwest Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Tucked away within those boundaries is Navajo Mountain High School, which is home to Indigenous students living in the Navajo Nation. There are 30 students enrolled in the school.
All of these elements piqued the interest of director Jared Jakins to begin the documentary, “Scenes from the Glittering World.”
“I felt a connection with the place,” Jakins says. “I grew up in a very rural town in Utah. I’ve been drawn to subjects that speak to rural life. Trying to fit into a small town community is a challenge. The isolation of the Navajo Nation really struck me.”
Jakins started the project more than four years ago. The documentary chronicles the daily life of three Indigenous students as they experience ubiquitous teen trials and triumphs while working to reconnect with their Navajo homeland and culture.
The documentary will premiere 9 p.m. Monday, May 16, on New Mexico PBS, channel 5.1 It is being broadcast under the Independent Lens series.
Granite Sloan is one of the subjects.
The quiet and shy 14-year-old student is struggling to find purpose and peace both at school and at home, following the death of his younger brother.
“It felt relieving to be part of the film,” Sloan says. “After expressing what we all go through on the Navajo Nation, there was a weight lifted.”
Sloan isn’t used to expressing his feelings as his culture deems it unnecessary.
The other two students are freshman Ilii Neang, who is new to the school after moving from Las Vegas, Nevada, and is unsure if her community will accept her queerness; and Noah Begay, a senior who, although is at risk of not graduating, remains confident in his passions.
Jakins enjoyed learning about the trio of students during the process.
“There are so many experiences that are unique to where they are,” Jakins says. “Yet there are so many experiences that speak to the adolescence experience. It allows us to see ourselves in them.”
Jakins says having the broadcast premiere feels like an ending point of the four-year journey.
Production took place over the course of 18 months.
“We were in the community filming for three or four months,” Jakins says. “The editing process took a year or two.”
Sloan wanted to take part in the documentary to show viewers how students on the Navajo Nation not only live, but survive.
“There’s a big difference between living in a city and living on the Navajo Nation,” Sloan says.
During the filmmaking process, Sloan was wrestling with what his future would look like after graduation.
After spending months with Jakins, he’s found an interest in the profession, which gives him a new purpose.
“After I graduate, I could see myself working with Jared,” Sloan says. “Being around the camera was an experience I liked.”
Jakins gives credit to Sloan’s mom for being so open to telling her story of raising her children, while grieving the loss of her 5-year-old.
He wanted to capture each person’s journey to adulthood, as they are also balancing the pressures of preserving Native culture and traditions.
“The film’s three central figures are at times quiet, introspective, often hilarious, still unsure of what they want and why,” Jakins says. “As a director, I was drawn to their humor and their youthful melancholy, but ultimately, their understated but remarkable frankness inspired me to collaborate closely with them in crafting this film. My approach to the formal qualities of the film was directly influenced by these collaborations.
“This process ultimately made Granite, Ilii and Noah active participants in forging their own representations. The result is a spectrum of vibrant familial life and carefully observed moments of catharsis.
“Our aim was to provide an intimate and lasting contemporary portrait of these beautiful and resilient young people. I hope audiences are moved by our characters’ survival, the love of their families and the healing of their sacred lands.”