A team of indigenous and women filmmakers is nearing a fundraising deadline for their TV adaptation of "Perma Red," an award-winning Montana novel.
The book, by Debra Magpie Earling, a Bitterroot-Salish tribal member, centers on Louise Red Elk, a beautiful and strong-willed young woman on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
"Reclaiming our narrative as Native people is what I really want to achieve with 'Perma Red,' " said director Maya Rose Ditloff.
She and the other leaders of the independent project, such as producers, executive producers, and screenwriter, are all female, and the team as a whole is 50 percent Native. It comes at a time when viewers are demanding that Hollywood diversify on all levels: the stories being told, who is telling them, and who is portraying them.
The plot, which touches on the current wave of missing and murdered indigenous women in the United States and Canada, adds another layer of timeliness to the project.
Ditloff said she wants to create a show that "addresses the vibrancy of not only Native Americans and Salish culture, but women in general." She hopes it moves away from the narrative of poverty and violence that "negates wonderful things about Native life and what it means to be indigenous."
The team is on its final fundraising push through an IndieGogo campaign. They were at around $19,400 on Friday at noon, with a goal of $25,000 and a deadline of Wednesday, Sept. 12. They have received a grant from the Montana Film Office and raised money privately.
Once the pilot is complete, they'll submit it to Sundance and South By Southwest film festivals, which have categories for prospective TV series. Their ultimate goal is make a limited series, perhaps five to seven episodes, for a streaming service.
Earling, the director of the University of Montana's Creative Writing Program, drew on the tragic story of her aunt in creating Louise, a beautiful and free-spirited young woman. Set on the Flathead Indian Reservation in the 1940s, the plot and themes range from the tension between tradition and assimilation with white culture, and family and love. It won the American Book Award, among other honors.
Earling consulted with screenwriter Gaaby Patterson, even providing insights into the story that weren't included in the final manuscript of her novel.
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After holding open casting calls, the filmmakers found their lead in Veyanna Webster. The 17-year-old from Ronan is an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
"When she walked into the casting room, Deborah said, 'That's my aunt,' " said Lynn-Wood Fields, the executive producer.
Dittloff is culturally Blackfeet and an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota. She was born in Browning and raised in Missoula, where she graduated from Hellgate High School. She is enrolled in the University of Southern California's top-ranked film program, with an emphasis on directing. While her background is in theater, she moved behind the camera because of the lack of roles for indigenous people.
She sees a "hunger for these kinds of new stories, and I think that means diversity in storytellers." She cited the example of "Crazy Rich Asians," which according to Forbes is the most successful romantic comedy in six years.
To research the look for the series, Dittloff consulted the historical archives at the University of Montana, and as a whole is hewing to "the idea of vibrancy and finding strength in femininity."
They plan to shoot on the Flathead Indian Reservation, where Earling's novel is set and where her aunt lived. Fields said it was important to stay in Montana, as they "consider the land a character" and are working with the tribes.
Johnny Arlee, a CSKT elder who worked on the Robert Redford film "Jeremiah Johnson," is serving as a cultural adviser and language specialist and will help the cast with lines of dialog in Salish.
Also serving as a cultural consultant are siblings Ivan and Ivy MacDonald of the Blackfeet Tribe. The two have made short films about missing and murdered indigenous women and are planning a feature-length documentary.
Since January, 20 indigenous women in Montana have gone missing or have been murdered, he said. Only last weekend, a woman went missing in the Flathead.
To him, Earling's story "plays into the crises and historical trauma that we as indigenous people face," he said. "Reverberations" from the issues in the 1940s are "very much felt" today.
He added that storytelling is how indigenous people have passed down their history for millennia, and the show could be one more means. Also one that's realistic in a way that some Hollywood portrayals are not.
"If given the opportunity, our TV series, our work, could be the truth to indigenous communities in Montana," he said. He drew a contrast with the Paramount Network TV series, "Yellowstone," which depicts a fictional tribe.