By Polly Summar
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer

ZIA PUEBLO— Maura Studi stands in front of a classroom of eighthgraders as they easily reel off the list of film genres they know: comedy, action, drama, adventure, mystery, horror, romance, fantasy.

A screenwriter and former actress, she’s not surprised by how quickly the answers come. “It’s really our cultural reference,” she said, explaining that film has become a universal form of expression.

Studi was visiting the Tsiya Elementary and Middle School on Thursday with her husband, American Indian actor Wes Studi, as part of an effort coordinated by Santa Fe’s nonprofit Silver Bullet Productions. The couple have lived in Santa Fe for 14 years.

The day’s goal was to create a film within a film: a documentary of a group of students making their own short film.

“The kids are so excited,” said principal Anthony Delgarito, on the third day of his new job. “Wes Studi is a big celebrity.”

Delgarito, who grew up at Zia Pueblo, recently left his position as principal at the Torreon Day School for the chance to work at Zia with his own people.

It was not the first time Wes Studi’s presence has created a sense of excitement at the pueblo. Four of the nine students in the workshops were extras five years ago, when Studi was at the pueblo for the shooting of a Tony Hillerman mystery for PBS, “A Thief of Time,” in which he played Navajo Police Lt. Joe Leaphorn.

“There can’t truly be Native films until Native people do it themselves—only they can tell their own story,” said Maura Studi, the daughter of actor Jack Albertson, an Oscar-winner and the original grandpa in the movie “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Fun exercises

The day starts with an improvisational workshop, taught by Randy Bennett, chairman of the arts department at Desert Academy in Santa Fe. During one of the exercises, he sets up an “expert” panel of three students and has the remaining six students ask questions, much like a quiz show.

But the panel members have to give the answer one word per student at a time, as they form sentences. “They really excelled at that one,” said Bennett afterward. “They had an instinct for storytelling.”

Susan Strasia, the students’ regular English teacher, sits in the back of the classroom, getting some tips. “It’s wonderful to see Randy bring this out of them,” Strasia said. “Sometimes, when you ask them a question, it’s dead silence.” But three of the students participating are old hands. Chassidy Hardy, Irvin Pino and Angelina Pino, all 13, participated in a previous Silver Bullet project in which they interviewed Gov. Bill Richardson for a film on the Zia symbol and what it means to their pueblo. Angelina Pino is the granddaughter of tribal leader Peter Pino.

“That film has been shown all over the state,” said Pamela Pierce, head of Silver Bullet Productions. “It’s now part of the curriculum for teaching New Mexico history and it’s being shown at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.”

The day’s project, planned to result in a 15-minute film, will be available to other schools that might be interested in a similar learning experience, and every child involved will get a copy of the film.

Pierce, a past executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Charter Schools and a lawyer who has grade levels from kindergarten to law school, started her production company with the sole mission of advancing educational excellence in the state’s rural and tribal communities.

She receives no salary and raises funds for each project. The project at Zia was aided by Las Campanas and Grand Prix de Santa Fe.

Film motivates and gives the student a skill they can use outside of high school,” says Pierce, adding that kids know “film is cool.”

Maura Studi is an adviser to Silver Bullet Productions, and Wes Studi is an honorary board member.

“Wes and I ran a similar workshop a couple of times at Rough Rock High School on the Navajo Nation to high school kids,” said Maura Studi. The couple have a son, Kholan, the same age as the eighth-graders they’re working on the day’s project.

Forming a plot

The day’s magic really starts to form in late morning as Maura Studi begins her screenwriting class. Leading the students through the classic “beginning, middle and end” of a good story, the group jumps into creating dialogue, beginning only with a basic premise of a young person who’s having trouble getting her homework done and then continually asking, “What if?” to various predicaments that could happen in the plot.

The students quickly agree on the main characters’ names — Jessica and Britney — add a third friend, Joel, a teacher and… a “genie” to save the day, whom they decide to call “Genius.” By the end of the two-hour class, the group has written a three-minute script, which Pierce has typed on her laptop so everyone can have a copy.

And that’s just when the star of the day, Wes Studi, arrives.

“I remember you,” says Kendra Saiz, 13. “A bunch of us played tourists,” she explains, adding later, “Our scene was shot more than 50 times.” The other students who were extras in the movie were Angelina Pino, Irvin Pino and Courtney Gachupin, all 13 now, but third-graders at the time.

Wes Studi’s job is to work with the five young actors for the film: Saiz, Tyler “Tiger” Toya, Irvin Pino, Courtney Gachupin and Trisha Reid. Meanwhile, the professional production crew for the day from Santa Fe — Beverly Morris and David Aubrey on cameras and sound mixer and James Becker — worked with the other eighth-graders.

The group takes over the Elders Room at the school, which is where the students usually work on learning their native language, Keres.

Wes Studi moves easily throughout the various shooting locations set up in different parts of the room, coaching the actors.

“I need you to become a genie, not human — some woo-woo and some roar!” says Studi, who has just finished working with director James Cameron on the film “Avatar,” as well as on an independent movie in Kansas on Indian boarding schools.

By 3 p.m., the group of nine youngsters has completely finished shooting their film and the rest of the school files into the room. Studi has agreed to do a short assembly for the school.

Asked why he became an actor, Studi tells the group, “Because I couldn’t do anything else!” But standing up and moving toward the students, he says, “If you can find one thing in life you want to do, you’re a lucky person.”