Growing up in Oceanside, filmmaker Erica Scharf recalled, no Native Americans were among her high school class of 2,000 students, and her only insight into Native American society came from history lessons learned in school.
Scharf, now 29 and living in Manhattan, recently completed her first feature-length documentary, chronicling the lives of Navajo high school students living on the reservation in New Mexico. The film, "Up Heartbreak Hill," was selected from among hundreds to be part of PBS' POV (Point of View) series and will have its New York broadcast premiere July 29 during POV's 25th anniversary season on WNET/13.
"The notion I had about native culture was from the perspective of history, and I became interested in learning more about modern native communities and culture and what that looked like," Scharf said.
Scharf, who holds a bachelor's degree in fine arts from New York University and has spent her years since graduation working in film and television, documented nearly the entire senior year of three teenagers in rural Navajo, N.M., where only 30 percent of students graduate from high school.
Starting in the school year of 2008-09, she profiled Thomas Martinez, an elite runner; Tamara Hardy, an academic superstar who also runs track; and Gabby Nakai, an aspiring photographer, as they struggled with whether to stay or leave their community. Nakai appears in the feature-length version to be released on DVD but is not in the POV broadcast.
"I visited probably four or five communities in the Navajo Nation," Scharf said. "The first town was Navajo, and that was the town where I completely fell in love with the community and the kids."
Scharf financed the film herself early on and lived in a trailer on the high school grounds while she was filming. Her project later gained funding from grants and other sources, such as the Independent Television Service and Native American Public Telecommunications.
Nakai, now 21 and living in Holbrook, Ariz., found the experience challenging at first. But, she said, as "people saw what we went through and high school too, after a while you started getting comfortable with it."
Martinez, also now 21, of Crystal, N.M., who sports a bright red mohawk in the film, said, "The documentary was an experience all in itself" that gave him a way to "explain my way of life."
"It made me really think about my goals and motives," he said in an email.
Simon Kilmurry, POV's executive director, said "Up Heartbreak Hill" was a natural choice for the series. About 1,000 films are submitted to POV each year, and 16 are selected for the series, he said.
"We don't see many documentaries that tell the story of native teens, and I think what Erica was able to do was really, by following these kids for a year, get at the heart of that kind of coming-of-age moment in a very particular place," he said.
Scharf maintains her roots on Long Island. Her parents still live in her childhood home, and her mother works as a teacher in Baldwin. The documentary's national broadcast is on July 26 -- ahead of WNET/13's showing -- and separate screenings are scheduled in New Mexico. Scharf and the students she profiled plan to attend.
"They really liked it," she said, "and I think that was the greatest reward of all."