Film as an educational instrument, especially when presented by a native son, is a dicey proposition, but Daniel Junge rightly holds nothing back in his inaugural effort.
"Chiefs," an 87-minute documentary, shows Wyoming at its best and its worst, and it will pique all kinds of emotions in its national television premier Tuesday night. "Chiefs" is far from an April Fool's Day quip.
The storyline follows the Wyoming Indian High School boys basketball team from the 2000 season - where the Chiefs finished second at the Class 2A state tournament - to the end of the 2001 campaign - where they earned coach Al Redman his seventh state title.
The feel-good segments are balanced with the typical teen tribulations common both outside the borders of the Wind River Reservation and the general hornets' nest inside the 1.7 million acre spread.
"This gives an unflinching portrait of Wyoming and what these boys encounter," said Junge, a self-described bench boy on Cheyenne East's 1988 state championship team. "It's not an altogether flattering portrait of Wyoming. But the overall message is positive and I do hope Wyoming is proud of the film."
The mix of good and bad resulted from Junge's wish for an honest portrayal of the main players and their hope to "represent." The rookie director also was afforded an education of his own.
"One of the country's largest reservations is smack-dab in the middle of our state, and yet so many of us - including myself before this film - know little or nothing about the reservation," Junge said. "Considering we all live in proximity to this culture, I think that there are some communication gaps that exist between these two cultures, and maybe they can be bridged with tools like this one."
"Chiefs" has plenty of basketball highlights (though Junge pushed for some 3 more hours of hardwood clips in the editing room, "but smarter heads prevailed"), and eye-catching scenes quintessential to high school athletics and Wyoming. There's an autograph session following a regional championship victory, families on porches and roadsides waving to the team bus leaving town and heading for Casper, swarms of fans at the Eastridge Mall during state, and a local business sign badly in need of a spell-checker ("Welcome All Basketball Teaems").
But the addition of frail teenage personalities consummates the storyline. Team members talk about "seeing the world," but few make it outside Fremont County. They struggle to find order in their basketball dreams, classroom responsibilities, family obligations and fun time with friends.
The documentary's keys were Junge's ability to live with the players throughout the filming and the players' openness. The result is a series of lowlights the teens encounter, which parents and educators need to discuss with our youth sooner rather than later.
Prime examples include pervasive marijuana use, including a player's joint session prior to a basketball game, and an uncomfortable racial confrontation outside Natrona County High School in Casper. The notion that either problem doesn't exist in the Cowboy State or shouldn't be talked about proves stale to a degenerate level.
Junge said he and the film's producers had heated discussions about the marijuana use in the film, but in the end the decision to include it fell on Junge and the players. Each gave the go-ahead, he said.
As for the racism, Junge anticipated contentious moments but was surprised that "it was the most pronounced in Casper."
"We digested the racism into the Casper sequence but it happened throughout the state during the two years, and more off-camera than on," he said. "I guess I was a little naive and surprised by it. This was the kind of behavior with which I was complicit when I was that age, but hopefully, slowly, things are changing."
Hopefully, "Chiefs" speeds things along.
(David Mayberry is the Star-Tribune's prep sports editor. E-mail him at email@example.com)
AT A GLANCE
- WHAT: A documentary showcasing the Wyoming Indian High School basketball team and a few interesting characters during the 2000 and 2001 seasons. The film won the Best Documentary award at the TriBeca Film Festival in New York last spring and has since aired at festivals in Laramie, Denver, San Francisco, Canada and Spain.
- TV: 8 p.m., Tuesday, KCWC (Wyoming Public Television).
- Beaver C'Bearing , the most talented runner/rebounder in Wyoming Indian High School history, could have competed at the college level if he made the right decisions along the way. He emerges as the film's main character, going from the pot-smoking court king to a run-of-the-mill post-high school male who never took a shot at chasing his dreams.
His mother, Gloria, offers some foreshadowing early in the film: "You've got to have balance and live your life in balance."
Beaver finds his order in the final minutes, hobbling up the stairs at the Casper Events Center following the 2001 championship. He injured his knee playing "independent ball" and watched the game as a fan.
Since the completion of the film, Beaver is a proud father and tutor at Wyoming Indian Elementary. He has also attended and participated in lectures on the film.
"While he exemplifies some of the problems specific to growing up Native American, he also represents the problems of just growing up," said director Daniel Junge. "There seems to have been this responsibility placed on Beaver's shoulders to represent that minority, and that's unfair."
- Tim Robinson is portrayed as the kid who made mostly correct choices, and Junge wishes he could have shown more of the point guard in the 2000 season. Robinson's return from a bull riding injury is critical to the following year's championship run.
On the way to the 2000 finals, the team stopped at a grocery store to presumably pick up drinks and snacks for the ride to Casper. But Tim notices Beaver buying some eye drops to mask his planned drug use.
"Sooner or later it's going to affect us," Tim says at the check-out aisle, looking past the camera at Beaver, "and maybe even cost us a championship."
Tim initially attended Northwest College in Powell to compete in rodeo but later returned to the reservation. He's now working at Lander Valley Medical Center and attending college classes in Riverton.
- Beaver's smoking sidekick, Brian SoundingSides , earned a hoops scholarship to United Tribes in North Dakota but returned to Wyoming after just three weeks.
- The film provides an insight into assistant coach Owen St. Clair and his actual role on the team.
One of coach Al Redman's first standouts and one of the reservation's success stories, St. Clair is seemingly in control of the squad and makes it his personal mission to create options for the players by sending their game tapes to colleges and following that up with phone calls to the coaches. But recruiting the "rez" isn't the same as recruiting any other high school in Wyoming.
"He has no phone at home, but it would be best to get ahold of him at the high school," St. Clair tells one interested coach.
St. Clair's genuine care for Wyoming Indian's tradition and its players designate him as Redman's successor - if the venerable leader ever decides to give up the whistle, and St. Clair can overcome typical local prep politics.
- Al C'Bearing , who scored 39 points in the 2001 championship game, redshirted in 2001-02 at Chadron (Neb.) State College and just completed his freshman year with the Eagles. He averaged 0.5 points and 0.5 rebounds in limited action in 19 games, but, more important, he's carrying a 3.3 grade-point average as an education major.
Al C'Bearing sees little time in the current version of "Chiefs" outside the basketball scenes, but Junge hopes a scene of him on an elk hunting trip makes it on a planned DVD version with additional footage.
- Gerry Redman , with as much air time as Al C'Bearing, remains true to his home. The soft-spoken leader on and off the court still lives on the rez and is a math tutor at Riverton Middle School. He's also attending classes at Central Wyoming College and taking native lessons from his father.
- Director Daniel Junge graduated from Cheyenne East in 1988 and was a member of the Thunderbirds' championship basketball team that year. He started his film career at Colorado College and now works for a non-profit film company in Denver.
"I am very proud that this is my first feature-length film, and there's plenty more stories in Wyoming," Junge said. "I'm hoping to return to my home state if they'll have me."
Junge is wrapping up Colorado-themed projects about a disabled actors group and a First Amendment case. In late April, he is scheduled to travel to Afghanistan to do a film on land mines.