School field trips can be a time of wide-eyed wonderment, of seeing new people in new places, and maybe even seeing yourself with fresh eyes. But for Esperanza Orozco-Charlo, a school trip to New York City last March was truly life changing:
"I feel like I can make a story," Orozco-Charlo says. "I'm a girl who came from nothing. But when I go to New York, it’s like, 'oh my god, look at this girl, she came from Montana! What’s it like, what’s it like?'"
Orozco-Charlo is a senior at Two Eagle River School, the Flathead Nation's tribal alternative school in Pablo. She and her classmates documented their photography trip to the Big Apple last year, and later Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes spokesperson Rob McDonald turned their raw tape into a film.
The film, called "REzMaDe" debuted last weekend at the Flathead Lake International Cinemafest in Polson, and received an honorable mention for Best Indigenous Film.
Speaking at a group reunion a few days before the film fest, McDonald told the group of students he felt as though he was watching them grow up as he edited their footage:
"I was hoping, let somebody watch this. Let this get some attention. I felt honored, privileged, like I'm seeing stuff that I wish I could show the world sometimes," McDonald says.
The first half of the film follows the students from a fly-on-the-wall perspective as they navigate bustling city streets, taste new foods and, of course, photograph the faces and places of the big city.
But toward the end, the film takes on a more somber tone. Each student reflects on their experience working with professional photographers and professors at New York University, and even bumping into people who had never met a Native American tribal member before.
Unidentified student: "Once they get past the whole you're native thing, and they start actually speaking to you, they’re really cool. It’s just the whole romanticizing Native American culture and things like that, like in Hollywood. But once they realize that we’re kind of human and we get on Instagram and eat tacos, you can relate to them in a lot of ways. And I think they just need time to realize that too."
For Esperanza Orozco-Charlo, being in New York City felt like a fresh start.
She’s now working with David Spear, the teacher who organized the trip, on a letter of introduction she plans to send out to some of the professors and community members she met on her trip, with the hope of paving a way to relocate.
"I really like what you wrote about yourself, obviously the issues you dealt with in terms of being a young person growing up," Spear says, "but I also like the ending too, about how you describe your excitement at being in New York and maybe wanting to become someone there. So, you want to read a little bit?"
"My name is Esperanza Orozco-Charlo. I spent the first six years of my life in a foster home. There was always someone sleeping on the living room couch or floor. Why did things have to be the way they were? Why isn't mom home to take care of us? Because she was still grieving. I always made sure we were good and got us what we needed. I would get us to and from school, even if it meant walking miles to get to the bus, and that it did. We stayed in hotels again, we jumped house to house, with whoever would let us stay. I became angry a lot. I questioned why I was being given this life. One day on a school field trip, I had taken one of the photography teacher’s cameras and started to take a bunch of pictures of the mountains, the trees the lakes, of everything. The next day my photos were on a bulletin board in the hallways. At first I was like, what the heck? But it was cool. Everyone loved my photos. I'm so happy that I picked up that camera that day. I'm so happy they chose me to go with them to New York, because I would have never got this opportunity to go back. I'm excited for my future and I'm hoping to tell my story through a camera. I want to get my story out there and to inspire others."
Teacher David Spear says he was happy to use his past professional connections to bring students to New York. Old friends at the Lower East Side Girls Club even donated funding for hotel rooms to round out the $70,000 the students raised through events and grants from the tribe.
Spear says all of that paved the way for Orozco-Charlo’s transformative experience:
"Just to have the notion of the trip become something, I mean, we were just taking some kids to NY, but I always had it in the back of my mind, maybe we can make that kind of connection, maybe we can make it something, that 'life changing experience' kind of thing. but she's really ready."
The students’ photographs from their New York trip are on display at the People’s Center in Pablo. Filmmaker Rob McDonald says he’d like to submit "REzMaDe" to other film festivals.
You can learn more at https://filmfreeway.com/project/robfilm