Up Heartbreak Hill: A Review

By Justin Eagle Gauthier

The opening line from director Erica Scharf’s documentary, “Up Heartbreak Hill,” encapsulates the feelings of seventeen-year-old Thomas Martinez with crystalline fragility; “Around here, everyone thinks they live in a third-world country.”  The film, “Up Heartbreak Hill,” chronicles the senior year of three Navajo high school students. The small town of Navajo, New Mexico is presented as the prototypical rural reservation community. In many ways, the documentary is able to capture the close-knit feel of the community and the complicated chapter of life the three students find themselves in. This level of intimacy was achieved through the production decision for the two-person film crew of Scharf and producer Christina King (Creek/Seminole/Sac & Fox) to move to and live within the community.up heartbeark hill movie cover

Director Erica Scharf, an amateur runner, became interested in the significance of running in Navajo culture and realized her own educational journey never intersected with the contemporary lives of the indigenous peoples of North America. After reaching out to high schools and coaches, she received an overwhelmingly positive response and set upon a scouting marathon throughout the Navajo nation. Scharf was drawn back to her first stop, Navajo Pine High School, by the community and students she met there. By focusing on three individual students and their experience, the filmmakers present a unique insight into complex school lives. Capturing all of the high school drama and social growth one would expect, the film also delves into the complexities of contemporary Native American youth coming-of-age in an American culture that has all but engulfed theirs.

The portrayal of the reservation community establishes the place as a geographic character in the film. The eponymous name of the film is taken from a hill in the community that acts as a grueling practice ground for the high school cross-country team. We follow the stories of Gabby Nakai, an aspiring photographer, Thomas Martinez, a cross-country/track star, and Tamara Hardy, salutatorian and student-athlete as they stand at the cusp of adulthood. The trio faces important decisions for their personal futures and the collective future of the Navajo Nation. Far from being a simple documentary featuring running, Up Heartbreak Hill presents a unique and complex picture of a tiny slice of Indian Country. The themes and characters are familiar, and the specificity with which their stories are presented is illuminating, distressing, and altogether identifiable.

Director Erica Scharf is an adept filmmaker with 10+ years of experience in many phases of documentary filmmaking and television production. In choosing the subject matter for Up Heartbreak Hill, Scharf cites the fact that her personal experience with Native America was very limited. She felt that her educational career had dealt with Native Americans in a frustratingly static and myopic fashion, emblazoning the first peoples of this continent as footnotes in a very one-sided and whitewashed account of American history.  The dreams and difficulties of the young subjects and their foundational connection to family act as major themes in the film. The academic and athletic endeavors are elements that overlay those themes. Increasingly, a feeling that the students must make a decision regarding their future levies pressure on the audience and draws into focus the deep-rootedness of all of their home lives.

By treading well-worn pathways of the documentary genre, Scharf and King place the viewer on a familiar journey that manages to offer an inspiringly edited documentary film worth checking out. Instances of inspiration, broken families, community, gossip, ceremony, friendship, mending families, survival of a nation, indecision, and hope all serve as touchstones for the quality of the viewing experience. In terms of cinematography, the high desert provides beautiful vistas for our filmmakers who manage to capture all their time-lapsed and crisp digital glory. Once again, considering that only two people comprised the film crew, the images and moments they were able to capture may speak to a more intimate and unobtrusive style of filming but the result feels authentic to that time and place. The soundtrack is effective and emotionally punctuated by its inclusion in pivotal scenes. The presence of ambient or diegetic sound interplays with simple piano themes and clean electric guitar riffs to provide backdrop for the emotional ups-and-downs of the three students and families.

Finally, the obvious message is one of hope and perseverance in the face of adversity. On a deeper level, the film portrays the lives of these young students with intent focus on trying to provide the most genuine connection between subject and viewer. In my opinion, Scharf and King manage to create a film that feels contemporary and could teeter on the verge of reservation brain-drain celebration if not for its forging of our relationship to characters who strive to ascend little town or reservation boundaries with the promise of returning home and sustaining their nation.

Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals.  He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.