“Native Americans make up less than 1% of the population of America.”
Taking a statistical approach to the underreported issue of systemic injustice directed at the Native American community in modern-day America, New York based, Saudi born filmmaker Mohammed Hammad’s revelatory documentary American Arithmetic adapts Native educator and poet Natalie Diaz’s original poem for screen as part of season 8 of non-profit arts initiative Motionpoems. Making its online premiere here today, DN asked Mohammed to share how he created this intimate look at a community of organizers reclaiming land and culture, whose lives have all too often been derailed by police intervention.
What brought you and the Motionpoems project together for American Arithmetic?
When I first moved to New York City a few years ago from the Middle East, I connected with Claire McGirr, an Associate Producer at Smuggler at the time. She mentioned that she was producing the upcoming Motionpoems season. I had never heard of Motionpoems at the time, but I was immediately drawn to the concept of the initiative that pairs filmmakers and poets to create socially impactful content yearly. My work had already been leaning towards socially-conscious projects leading up to this point so it seemed like a great fit at the time.
I knew that I had to be malleable along the way in order to create an authentic portrait of the community.
Out of all the poems presented to the filmmakers by Motionpoems, American Arithmetic stood out to me the most for various reasons. Prior to living in the US, I had always been intrigued by Native American culture but had very little knowledge of their current status in the country. Being a recent immigrant to the US, I was quite shocked at the statistics behind Native Americans’ current occupancy of the land, as well as the numbers behind police brutality mentioned in the poem. The opening line “Native Americans make up less than 1% of the population of America” immediately put things into perspective.
Those statistics are shocking especially in light of the much more prevalent Black Lives Matter movement. Is there a reason why this systematic mistreatment of the Native American populous remains under the radar of public awareness?
A specific factor we learned from the ACLU that contributes to the inaccurate representation of Native deaths by the police force is that these individuals are frequently misidentified as another race during medical examinations. This implies the statistics are more severe than we currently understand.
On a societal level, most non-native people are unfamiliar with the Native lands on which their communities were built and are much less familiar with the Native communities currently living in their cities and surrounding areas. Indigenous news across the board is largely unrepresented by mainstream media, which makes suppressing news of state-inflicted violence on their communities all the more possible.
Native peoples continue to tell these stories and say their names. Non-native people must engage similarly with these efforts as they have with Black Lives Matter, i.e, consume and share the art and activism within their communities in order to support.
Did you go into the project with a pre-existing idea of the types of participants whose voices and images you wanted to include in the film?
It was very much new territory for me, and I did indeed have preconceptions, however, I knew that I had to be malleable along the way in order to create an authentic portrait of the community. We were interested to shoot in Minneapolis, given the community is home to the one of a kind American Indian Cultural Corridor (an area featuring indigenous run stores, art galleries, community development centers and beyond) and is a historically established hub of indigenous activism. We figured the best way to meet potential subjects, and generally navigate the community’s relationship with police, was to connect with people involved in this activist/engagement work.
It was really difficult to establish our intentions as filmmakers over email and phone calls.
Did you encounter any resistance from the community as an outsider attempting to tell their understandably highly emotive experiences?
We definitely encountered hesitation from some of the communities we initially contacted regarding the project due to negative experiences they’ve previously had with outsider film crews. It was really difficult to establish our intentions as filmmakers over email and phone calls. When we connected with Arianna Nason of MPD-150, a grassroots organization dedicated to creating alternatives to police intervention, we had to be clear about why we were doing this work and what our goals were for the film. She agreed to be involved and helped bridge the connection to a number of fantastic members of the community – we’re indebted to her support.
We also connected with community organizations like the American Indian Center on the ground and were directed into the hands of several individuals who opened up about their experiences with police targeting and violence. It was incredibly moving to see Natalie Diaz’s poem resonate with people individually and we were touched that people were willing to open up and share their experiences.
How did your conceptualization of Natalie Diaz’s poem evolve from an initially abstract narrative to its current form and how do you feel the use of portraiture and mixed format cinematography strengthened your interpretation of the poem?
I initially had a visual treatment that was more abstract and super ambitious production-wise relative to the budget we were working with. Part of the initial concept was to film portraits of residents of the reservations. After much consideration and a push from my producers, we decided it would be best to have the film feature portraits of indigenous people living in a city to better relate to Natalie Diaz’s depiction. We felt it would create moments of intimacy that would contextualize the statistics mentioned in the poem.
I felt that the camcorder footage would add that extra layer of intimacy between the film and the viewer, to show a more intimate perspective of the illuminating conversations happening behind the scenes.
From its opening moments, American Arithmetic’s soundtrack is peppered with a multitude of vocal fragments discussing the hostile environment encountered by the Native American community. Could you tell us more about the process of building the film’s soundtrack?
The more I embraced the portraiture treatment of the film, the more the pieces of the puzzle came together more, especially with regards to the audio part of the film. It just made sense to add snippets of our subjects’ interviews and to weave together a collection of reflections, each contributing to the conversation on what it’s like to be a Native person in America today.
It was incredibly moving to see Natalie Diaz’s poem resonate with people individually.
Do you feel that your experience of having lived in several countries meant that you approached this project from a particular vantage point?
My experience living in several countries taught me to be malleable and I definitely applied that into the process of making this film. The film itself took me out of my comfort zone as I was making a stylized hybrid poetic documentary/narrative piece which I can’t say I’ve ever done before.
What will we see from you next?
I recently finished my latest film, a short narrative piece about domestic abuse in Saudi Arabia called Precious. It’s currently doing the film festival circuit. You can check it out at preciousshortfilm.com.