Speaking with Sterlin Harjo: An Interview

by Sterlin Harjo and SFLR Staff

Sterlin Harjo, a member of the Seminole Nation, is of Muskogee heritage and was raised in Holdenville,

Oklahoma. He studied art and film at the University of Oklahoma, and received a Sundance Institute fellowship in 2004.

Sterlin Harjo’s short film, Goodnight, Irene, premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and was the recipient of a special jury award at the Aspen Shortsfest. His feature film, Four Sheets to the Wind, premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival—and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. Harjo’s second feature, Barking Water, premiered at Sundance in 2008, and his first feature documentary, This May Be the Last Time, premiered there in 2014.

Harjo’s third feature film, Mekko, a thriller set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, premiered at the Los Angeles Film

Festival in the summer of 2015. Mekko chronicles the story of a homeless Native American parolee seeking to rescue his beautiful, chaotic community from a darkness that threatens.

Harjo’s recent work includes Terlton, a documentary about a devastating industrial accident in a small Oklahoma town, and Virtual Standing Rock Tour, a virtual reality tour housed within Santa Fe’s Zohi Gallery.

Visitors who take the virtual tour can opt to ride a bicycle through Standing Rock, camp and chat with others, and even participate in a communal dinner.

An Interview with Sterlin Harjo and SFLR Staff

I am a student taking dramatic writing for the first time. What advice would you give?

It’s such a personal journey as a writer. Everyone is different. I think people know if they are writers or not. If you are, you write, and you get inspired by reading or whatever inspires you. Maybe it’s music, film, or art.

In terms of making a film, what is the most intimidating part of the process, and what is the most rewarding?

I believe the most intimidating thing and the most rewarding thing share the same answer. The most intimidating part of the process is actually doing it. You talk and think about it, but actually going through the motions and making it happen is terrifying at first. It’s also intimidating when you have to show people what you’ve made. You get over that with experience and time. The most rewarding is the same thing… actually making it. Making the film is the most rewarding.

Are you considering using your medium to document or comment on the political turmoil we’re facing in the United States today?

Not directly. I think I can say more by telling stories. When I was younger I used to say that I wasn’t a political filmmaker, but now I feel differently. We are all political.

Would you say you have a muse?

Yeah, most definitely. It’s a lot of things and usually different for every project. It could be a family member, a lover, a friend, or a hero. It’s different every time.

What have you had to give up, or sacrifice, in pursuit of your art?


Can you describe one of your best teachers?

Yeah, there are two. One was my English teacher senior year. I told her that I wasn’t interested in most books. She made it her mission to go into the library and find a book that might interest me. Strangely, it was Atlas Shrugged (by Ayn Rand). I loved it. The other teacher was my art teacher in high school. He gave me great advice; he said, “Never have a fallback plan, because you’ll fall back.” I’ve lived by that since.

Do you ever experience “writer’s block”? If so, what do you do to combat it?

I don’t consider it writer’s block. It’s more like a puzzle. The stories are in there, I just have to unlock them […] whether that’s leaving my comfort zone, or being more stable, or whatever. It’s a mystery.

What kinds of challenges have you had to face as a man of color working in a predominately white industry?

They don’t want you to succeed. They don’t want to fund your work. They don’t believe people want to hear your stories. So, you constantly prove them wrong. It’s exciting.