By RENEE FITE
Like the woman who inspired the film, “The Cherokee Word for Water” has a powerful message.
The film is a love story, but not in the tradtional sense. It illustrates the late Wilma Mankiller’s passion for people, and for the man she married and loved for 30 years, Charlie Soap.
And it is a story of hope.
The former Cherokee Nation principal chief has been lauded for her ability to empower people to believe in themselves. From the moment the movie begins, it draws the viewer in with a beautiful visual image of a river, meandering through the woods, and depicts a young Soap, the storyteller, who begins his tale as he walks along a bluff. The music, performed by local people in recognizable places, helps to authenticate the story.
The tone of the movie reflects a strong and honorable culture, and people, compassionate and determined. It is a story about people who rediscover the power of a community, of individuals working together for a common goal – in this instance, to provide water to the people of the Bell community. Mankiller and Soap organized native community members to install a water line, but were also involved in the actual labor.
“It was the people who made Wilma, and I appreciate people giving her support,” said Soap. “Even though she was my wife, when she gave lectures or spoke, I think back on how she kept my attention, what a powerful speaker she was.”
The movie screening was free Thursday evening at Northeastern State University.
It’s a story about a community coming together, said Todd Enlow, NSU Auxiliary Services director.
“When the chips were down, they overcame tremendous odds,” said Enlow, a former Cherokee Nation executive. “It talks about the heart of individuals and the heart of a community when they come together, so it’s inspirational.”
The first 50 people in line to attend screening received a copy of Mankiller’s book, “Every Day is a Good Day.”
Many asked Soap to sign their copies. Amon them was Georgetta Smith, who grew up with Mankiller’s daughter Gina.
“I’ve known Charlie for years; I used to stay at their house,” Smith said. “The movie shows a community coming together to put in a water line that helped all the people out.”
One of Soap’s favorite things about the movie is that it put local people up on the big screen.
“Many people want to be on the screen, and many Cherokees came out to Bell to audition,” Soap said. “It’s wonderful to see local people on the screen.”
Many were inspired after watching the movie.
“It’s amazing they could get all those people to work together,” said Betty Burnett, who came with her sister, Doris Belt.
“This was like the beginning. I remember well when all this was going on. It was the beginning of accomplishments by the Cherokee Nation,” Belt said.
Lloyd Spyres said he never realized how much Mankiller accomplished until seeing the movie.
“It was a great story,” said Spyres. “Wilma showed that by working together, they could do it.”
Dudley Brown met Soap and Mankiller when he first came to town 30 years ago,
“This movie is great,” said Brown “It allows people to know her and learn something about who she was and what she did.”
Kristina Kiehl, co-producer of the film and a longtime friend of Mankiller’s, enjoyed the experience.
“It was an honor to be entrusted with this,” said Kiehl.
She credited the Mankiller Foundation as the primary benefactor for the production. Mankiller and Kiehl worked on the movie idea for more than 20 years.
“Wilma and I talked about how we wanted the movie to look and feel,” Kiehl said. “In production [after Wilma’s death], we worked on it until we got it right, until it felt right. Every step of the way, it was a family production.”
Kiehl said protecting the integrity of the film was difficult at times.
“Hollywood is a very different world,” she said. “We had to fight for this film to turn out this way.”
Hollywood wanted to do it their way, Soap said, but Kiehl dug in her heels.
“Every time somebody saw the script, they wanted to beef it up, beef up the love story,” she said. “But we told it the way people are. We had to fight editors not to put their music in, and to put in the music we recorded, like the Sanders Flat Band and Jay Hannah.”
The script was approved by Mankiller herself, and the story was told the way she wanted it, Soap said.
“It’s been a wonderful experience making the film,” Soap said. “It was hard at first, an emotional time. We started shooting shortly after Wilma passed.”
According to Soap, the film is being requested all across the U.S., for film festivals, and even overseas.
“[People from] Sweden, Germany, London, [have requested it],” he said. “I’m not that glamorous; I want to be back home with people I’ve known and in the country.”
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