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Meet the director behind 'Bad Indian: Hiding in Antelope Canyon' documentary

A new documentary premiering at the Phoenix Film Festival focuses on a Diné family inhabiting Antelope Canyon. KJZZ host Tom Maxedon sat down with Joe Raffa, the the director of " Bad Indian: Hiding in Antelope Canyon," to learn more.

Full interview

TOM MAXEDON: First off, just tell me a little bit about your background as a filmmaker.

JOE RAFFA: As a filmmaker, I'm born and raised in South Philadelphia, South Jersey. I made my way out to Los Angeles about 10 years ago. This is my first feature length documentary as a director. Most of my work has been narrative features, where I did thrillers in the SAG modified low budget level. So a lot of films between $250,000, $750,000 that told, you know, stories about the dark elements of human nature or the dark corners of the human psyche. That's kind of what I specialize in.

"Bad Indian: Hiding In Antelope Canyon" is new territory for me. And I was excited to help bring their story to life. And, and I very much feel like an instrument in this process. And I was just humbled and grateful that I, that I was able to, you know, help share their story.

MAXEDON: Yeah. And I just watched the film and I have to say it's just beautiful from multiple angles. First of all, the cinematography, but the intimacy that is expressed in this film, I really felt like I was sitting in the living rooms of folks whom you interviewed. The title, "Bad Indian." How did that come about?

RAFFA: It is interesting because we, you know, they're known as the Corn Pollen Family of Antelope Canyon. And that was kind of our, our working title working on the documentary. But when we really started to learn about their story and they shared how, you know, Logan's great-great grandfather, Rita's great grandfather, was perceived, especially in the newspapers and how he was labeled a "bad Indian." I thought that was pretty, that was pretty provocative. And I feel like the Native Americans have been misconceived or misinterpreted.

And that's what Taadidiin Tours is really about. Taadidiin Tours brings people from all over the world, gives them an opportunity to share their culture with their visitors. And so I felt like the "Bad Indian" title was a great way to subvert that label, right? We, we see how they were perceived negatively, but when we really open ourselves up and learn about somebody's true history and their true culture, not necessarily the history that we were taught in school, right? The one-sided history that was quote unquote "written" from the side that won. We realized that we, we really don't know anybody at all until we really sit down and have a conversation with them.

MAXEDON: You mentioned the name of the family and I want to get to that here in just a bit. But the opening of this film starts with a prayer. And of course, you have a mixture of English and Diné language with subtitles that I thought were really effective. How important was it to you to allow people to speak in their own language? And then also how long did it take you to develop a trust between folks to get them to express?

RAFFA: That was another thing we learned over the process of this. The Diné, specifically, when something bad happens or they talk about tragedy, they, they don't want to talk about it at all because in their culture, it's, they think it, it, it brings more of it. So they, they were very much guarded, as they should be. So a lot of the process was just establishing a relationship with them. And you know, I, I think it's helpful when you go in without an agenda, right? You need a plan, you need to have a focus on what you're trying to highlight what you're trying to showcase, but just have an open conversation and open dialogue and know that, you know, this is a safe space for you to just share your truth, share your story. This is a collaborative process. I'm not gonna come in, I'm not gonna film you, take an interview and then do whatever I want with it. This is a collaborative process all the way through.

And Logan was really, really great in that regard, because Logan, you know, he's been really hungry to tell this story for a long time. So he very much had a plan. But when you're making a documentary, you have to be open to changes along the way and know an interview might not go the way you anticipated or somebody might say something inspiring that you haven't thought of, which leads you down another path. So I think it was just establishing trust between me and the family and the family and its guests as well. In terms of the language, the language, whenever we could incorporate their original language, we thought it was very important.

And the opening prayer that you mentioned specifically was very interesting because again, when you're making a documentary, you need a plan. We did not intend to open the documentary with a prayer. But when we were filming one of the interviews, one of the guests said, "may I say a prayer before the interview?" And I thought the prayer, once it was translated, encapsulated the, the film beautifully as well. So we ended up including that in the opening and I thought it, it, it really worked out and that's something that none of us planned for. It was one of those just things that happened on the day.

MAXEDON: Well, let's talk about the name of the family. Taadidiin is what we have currently. But the film is a beautiful exploration of how that changed over the years. Can you talk about the original name of the family and how it became what it did?

RAFFA: Yeah, Rita's great grandfather and Logan's great-great grandfather was Hastiin Tadidinii and he was a Corn Pollen Man. And the Tadidinii name was very, very important. But in the papers, you noticed that they referred to him as Hastiin Tadytin. And that's an unfortunate you know, in, in American history that, that comes up a lot. We, we've seen it also in Ellis Island. When immigrants came over from Europe, we've seen it with Native American culture and it's evolved since then. They settled on Hastiin Taadidiin for their touring company and they thought that was probably the best way to represent their past and their present. I mean, the family could talk way more than I can about the, the subtleties and the intricacies of how it really developed over time. But that's kind of the scope of it.

MAXEDON: The film also touches on some very painful moments with respect to re-education if you will. And Indian schools specifically. Certainly folks from this region are familiar with the Indian School in the Phoenix metropolitan area and the horrors that were committed. You get into that pretty deeply, and there's an extremely emotionally touching scene involved. I think we're hearing more and more about these kinds of atrocities. And I think also sometimes younger generations simply do not understand how painful that history was. But I'm also wondering if you found folks who just simply don't want to relive that pain. They, not that they want to ignore their history but they're searching for something that's more promising. Does that make sense?

RAFFA: Yeah. I think it's, there's a delicate balance there because it is, it is just, it's sickening and it's horrifying, what they experienced and what their ancestors experienced. And I think presently there is a willingness, and a focus. They do not want to be considered victims because they're not victims, they're survivors, right? And through their strength and they're surviving, they are looking forward to a brighter future, which they have been proactive to build themselves, which I just think is, it's commendable, it's inspiring. And, and while the past is not easy to stomach at all, I feel like this is really an indictment on that. It's, it's impossible to suppress the human spirit.

MAXEDON: Well, and in just less than an hour and a half, you move from the 1800s to present day. What's the outlook based upon the past and into the future? You just touched on survival. But one of the things that I noted in the film was the description of how difficult it is often to start businesses on a reservation. And after all, that is kind of the thing that links this film together, from, you know, the past of not necessarily being able to control your own destiny to being able to do so in the future and make money. And then in turn with that money grow communities in numerous ways.

RAFFA: Yeah, I think the giving back is one thing that was consistent from generation to generation to generation in their family. Right now, the touring company, flourishing touring company again, bridging the cultural divide between the Diné culture and the rest of the world. But also they're able to, to take that profit and give back to the community, scholarship programs, employ their community as well.

Clyde Tadidinii, generation before, he was known for bringing water to everybody. He constantly shared food from his gardens. And Hastiin Tadidinii was hiding in Antelope Canyon. He's the one who started the community there, right? And so they were in a position because Hastiin Tadidinii did not go on the long walk. They had established resources for people. When the long walk was over, they were able to share with their community and help build that community. And that's really what it was about from, from Estine Tadidinii to Clyde Tadytin to Dale Tadytin, to Rita and Logan, it's about giving back because when you give back, you just strengthen your community. And that's something that they really, they really focus on.

MAXEDON: "Bad Indian: Hiding in Antelope Canyon" is set to premiere at the Phoenix Film Festival on Friday, April 12. And we've been spending some time with its director, Joe Raffa. Joe, thank you so much for talking to us about the film.

RAFFA: Thank you so much, Tom.

Tom Maxedon is the host of KJZZ’s Weekend Edition on Saturday and Sunday from 6-10 a.m. and All Things Considered on Monday from 3-6 p.m.