Director Sterlin Harjo hits the streets for Mekko
Most auditions take place in an office or studio. When Sterlin Harjo started looking for actors for Mekko, his drama about homelessness among Oklahoma's Native American population, he headed to the soup kitchen.
For Harjo, the tale of Creek Nation member Mekko (respected stunt rider Rod Rondeaux) returning to Tulsa after 19 years in jail, is about "the oxymoron of people being indigenous to the land and being homeless." However, he wasn't interested in misery tourism of life on the street. Whenever such stories are told, he said, "It's always focused on the fact that people are stuck there, or that it's dire. People are survivors, and we make the best of what we can."
It's a connection to his Seminole roots, and how everything is faced with humor and resilience. That stretches back to the hope songs sung on the Trail of Tears, which he tackled in his 2014 documentary, This May Be the Last Time. "They're super sad," he said. "If you hear them, they sound like you're mourning. But they're not meant to be. They're meant to lift you up and keep you going."
The roots of the story go back to when he moved from tiny Holdenville, Okla. (pop. 5,771), to Tulsa, away from his close-knit family. "I missed that familial camaraderie that native people normally have," he said, and with no close connection to the city's large Cherokee, Creek, and Osage populations, he soon realized that the native people he saw most were the homeless he drove past. "I'd see them joking with each other and laughing, but they were like a family, and it reminded me of home."
The first time he broached the subject on film was when he interviewed Jimmy Washington, a homeless Cherokee man: It was through Jimmy that he heard about Tulsa's Iron Gate soup kitchen, and when he started casting Mekko, that's where he went. That was a nod to Werner Herzog's 1977 black comedy Stroszek, which placed its cast in real locations among non-actors. "They embraced the fact that they had a low budget, and they embraced that they didn't have a large crew, and you could tell that Herzog created space in scenes. The production would go into a diner, and they created a scene around what they had. So I thought the only way to make a film about the homeless community is to do it like that."
Mekko screens Saturday, May 7, 8pm, at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre as part of the Cine Las Americas International Film Festival.