Since we were camping, we didn't watch as much TV last week and didn't have time for a movie, but the week before, I enjoyed a fascinating documentary about Native American teens.
Tamara, one of Thomas' closest friends, is one of the smartest kids in her class and wants to go to college to become an engineer. She says that the classes offered in the small reservation high school don't challenge her enough, and her teacher tries to coach her for the SATs, but he says their students never get high scores simply because they don't have the resources to teach at a higher level. Her principal explains that his budget for the entire high school is just $13,000 a year(!).
Gabby, the third in their group of close friends, has been passionate about photography ever since her parents gave her a camera. She'd like to go to college for Photography, and her family is supportive of her. However, Gabby has a boyfriend on the reservation. He'd also like her to go to college, but she is torn about leaving him behind.
The film follows the three friends through their senior year. They grapple with typical issues of any teens - what to do with their lives, where to go to college, the social dramas you find in any high school - but they have some unique issues, too. The reservation is a very insular society, and the outside world is large and a little scary. In many cases, due to extreme poverty, substance abuse, and a culture that emphasizes the family and the tribe, they are torn because they want to see what is out in the world but their family needs them. I was fascinated by this tension between the modern world and the ancient Navajo culture, as well as the inside look at life on a reservation. There's a bit of suspense in wondering what each of the three friends will decide, and a special feature shows an interview with Thomas and Tamara three years later, so you get a peek at how their lives turned out.
Up Heartbreak Hill was produced by PBS and featured at several film festivals. It is available on DVD (I borrowed it from my local library) and it can be livestreamed through the PBS website through November 30 (I'm not sure if it's on Netflix).
Have you seen any documentaries lately that you enjoyed?
If you want to read more about Native Americans and their early conflicts with European settlers, I really enjoyed these historical novels:
- Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, about the first Native American to attend Harvard
- One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus, about white women who went to live with a Cheyenne tribe
- Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper, an excellent middle-grade novel about a unique friendship between a Puritan boy and a Native American boy