Skip to main content

Tales from the Trenches: A Fable of Faith, Funding and Feathered Friends

By Jilann Spitzmiller

Editor’s note—This issue, we introduce a pilot feature, “Tales from the Trenches,” in which we invite an IDA member to share with fellow filmmakers a cautionary tale or a lesson learned on the long road from conception to delivery. This month, Jilann Spitzmiller, who made Homeland with her husband, Hank Rogerson, writes about fundraising, the film vs. video conundrum, and heeding the hawk. Homeland airs November 16 on PBS and will also be featured at the Native American Film and Video Festival in New York City November 13-19.


It was a rainy February in Los Angeles. Hank—my husband and filmmaking partner—and I had been contemplating beginning a documentary up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, but we had sent out only one fundraising letter. We were broke and already weary with the thought of gearing up for grantwriting. But that day, from his window, Hank saw a hawk sitting in the rain, not twenty feet away; it seemed too odd not to be a sign.

When we first started submitting grant proposals for other projects ten years ago, we used to go to the mailbox with great anticipation. We had no idea that four years would pass before we would get a major grant, but on this wet day in February, Hank checked the mail as soon as the postman slammed the box shut. Among the bills, there was a response to a fundraising letter we had sent three weeks before. It was a check for $20,000—more money than we had made in the last year. Our film, Homeland, the contemporary story of four Lakota Indian families, suddenly had legs.

Little did we know, it would be two long years of day jobs and many credit cards before we would get another grant--and the chance to see all of our film that had been held hostage at the lab.

We decided early on in the making of Homeland that we would shoot on 16mm film, even though there would be consequences. It would be much more expensive; we wouldn't get the immediate feedback possible with video; and we couldn't shoot as much footage. But we would have much richer images. The land is the center of Lakota culture, and our challenge was to visually capture that depth of reverence for the earth. The light, the landscape, and the living things within that landscape always come off better on film. Also, we really wanted to honor the people, and one of the ways to do this was to have the best possible production quality.

That initial $20,000 stretched out over two film shoots in 1996, and left us in a situation that many indie filmmakers can appreciate. By the fall of 1997, we had been working on the film for almost two years, and were deeply in debt—and deeply in doubt. The biggest question that loomed in our minds was, had we really captured on film what we thought we had? There was audio of certain events, such as a scene where Michael, a spiritual leader, predicts that an eagle or hawk will fly over when he finally gets a home for his family after 18 years of trying to get tribal housing. We had the audio, but did we have the image? The answer lay in the negative in the lab--processed, but never viewed.

In December 1997, The Soros Documentary Fund gave us our second grant, which finally allowed us to telecine our 20,000 feet of negative. We saw that our cinematographer, Shana Hagan, had masterfully captured the aforementioned moment, and many more. We definitely had a film, and we could see the end—or thought we could. It would still be two more years before we would be able to finish Homeland, but there was one piece of footage that really kept us going. When Michael receives his home, an eagle flies over the house, just as he predicted. As it soars above, he says, "Always have faith in what you're doing."

It was that quote that got us through. In early 1999—almost three years to the date after the hawk visited—we received finishing funds from ITVS (Independent Television Service). The ITVS production manager called and said, "We want you to stop fundraising and start creating." It doesn’t get much better than that.

Although it took a lot longer than we had anticipated to make Homeland, in the end it all made sense. In the three years it took to get finishing funds, the stories of the four families had really made an arc. Now, in the year 2000, video seems like the more obvious choice for documentary and low-budget filmmakers. But just as a film's genre and structure should grow naturally out of its subject, so should its medium. In making the leap with 16mm, we have no regrets. And every time we see a hawk, we thank it for its message.