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First women

Gale Anne Hurd talks about her ‘Mankiller’ doc and the role of small film festivals

Wilma Mankiller is sworn into office as Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, 1985

Courtesy of Wilma Mankiller Foundation

In the 1980s Kathleen Kennedy and Gale Anne Hurd were the first women producing big budget films—for Spielberg and James Cameron, respectively. The path they forged claimed some real control in a male-dominated industry that doesn’t generally afford females positions of power.

Now Kennedy is in charge of “Star Wars” and Hurd produces “The Walking Dead.” Their collective resumes define my cinematic awakening, from “Indiana Jones” to “Aliens.”

When I got on the phone with Hurd, she was disarmingly cordial. Instantly, I was barely nervous to talk to one of the creators of “The Terminator”.

Hurd produced “Mankiller,” one of the documentary feature films at this year’s Tulsa American Film Festival. See it at Circle Cinema on October 12 at 8 p.m.

Joe O’Shansky: What was it about the Wilma Mankiller story that inspired you to produce the film?

Gale Anne Hurd: This is the third documentary that Valerie Red-Horse Mohl and I have produced together. The first two were also Native American subjects. The first was about the Navajo who served as code talkers during WWII, and the second was about the Choctaw, who created code during WWI.

While Valerie was in Oklahoma, interviewing Choctaw families and historians about the creation of that code, and Valerie being of Cherokee descent herself, she was asked if she would be interested in telling [Mankiller’s] story.

The minute I learned about Wilma Mankliller, and one of the reasons I’m interested in getting this film seen, is that I had no idea who Wilma Mankiller was. And that’s a travesty. That she is not in the pantheon of leaders that we learn about in history.

O’Shansky: Did you feel a kinship, between her being a first Chief and the sort of groundbreaking you did as one of the first female Hollywood producers?

Hurd: Absolutely. I think that people who are the first, or among the first, you know there’s no rule book. You have to make it up as you go along. Some people stumble along the way, but the remarkable thing about Wilma is that is that she didn’t. Literally, her life experience, as challenging as it was to rise from poverty, to be relocated when she was young to San Francisco, all of those experiences created the skillset that she needed to be such a good leader. I think that’s a lesson that anyone can take from this story.

O’Shansky: What role to you think regional festivals like Tulsa American Film Fest play in getting movies like this out to a wider audience?

Hurd: For many, many years, and continuing now, I’ve served at the Motion Picture Academy on what was before the film festivals grant committee, and is now the overall grant committee. And it is a mandate of ours to fund smaller, regional film festivals, and to support them. Because in many cases seeing a film at a film festival is the only exposure that anyone in the area will get to such compelling stories, whether they’re documentaries or narrative fiction films. It’s sad to think that with so many independent film theaters going out of business that these small, treasured, independent films won’t be seen as much as they used to. The smaller festivals have really stepped up to fill that gap.

O’Shansky: So there are other festivals like TAFF that you support, to fill the same role?

Hurd: Absolutely. We’ve supported everything from The Rocky Mountain Women’s festival in Colorado Springs, to festivals in Inuit communities.

O’Shansky: Do those festivals typically have a Native American component built into them?

Hurd: Those are the stories that resonate. But at the same time they’re not exclusively that kind of programming. One of the festivals, even though it’s not in the U.S., that will be screening “Mankiller” is the Imaginative Festival in Toronto. It’s the largest indigenous film festival in the world.

O’Shansky: I remember Wilma Mankiller from when I was a kid—how much everybody seemed to love her. My politics were only just forming back then but I could tell she was my kind of person, you know?

Hurd: That’s an enduring part of her legacy. She not only self-identified as a feminist, but as a liberal. Yet she was able to achieve such success by crossing the aisle and working with people whose overall ideology might be quite different. But they had the same goal, to make the Cherokee Nation self-sufficient. And in fact, she was asked to run as Deputy Chief by Ross Swimmer, who was very conservative. It’s important for all of us to remember that things get done if you if you can work with people you may not always agree with.   

O’Shanksy: Oklahoma used to be a liberal hotbed. It’s where Woody Guthrie came from, and now its’s a “What’s the Matter with Kansas” thing. Somehow it got turned around.

Hurd: Part of that is we like the world the way it was, and not the way it is. I think that we’re seeing that now. Which is, if you can’t embrace change, you’ll be left behind. And there are a lot of people who fear being left behind. 

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