Water is essential to all forms of life. The planet is two-thirds water, and the human body contains 55 to 78 percent water.
Imagine, then, living in a community in the 1980s with no inside running water – no faucets, no showers, no toilets.
This was the reality for the 400 members of the Bell community, in Adair County, until they joined together to change their fate.
The late Wilma Mankiller, former principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and her husband, Charlie Soap, believe people who come together can overcome any obstacle. And with that in mind, they rallied the people of Bell and installed a waterline, which drew national attention.
The project has since become the subject of a feature film, “The Cherokee Word for Water,” which is currently being cast and will be filmed on-site in September.
Paul Heller, producer of the Academy Award-winning “My Left Foot,” and cinematographer Chuck Minsky of “Pretty Woman” and “The Producers,” have joined with Soap to create the film, which demonstrates the traditional Native values of reciprocity and interdependence in rebuilding a community.
“Ever since the Bell Water Project happened, Kristina Kiehl, one of Wilma’s closest friends, wanted to tell the story,” said Heller. “She’s been trying for a number of years to find a way to tell that story. I’m the one who had made movies before; they call me the ‘adult adviser,’ so that’s how I came to be involved.”
Heller believes the story will be moving to a wide audience.
“It’s such a great story,” said Heller. “Wilma was a great woman, and Charlie is an amazing man. All of us got caught up in the dream of telling this story, and now it’s happening.”
In video clips made shortly after the Bell project was complete, both Soap and Mankiller talk about how the spirit of native communities can be used for the greater good.
“I feel that not just Cherokee people, but poor people in general, have a much greater capacity for leadership and for solving their own problems than they’re given credit for,” said Mankiller in one of the clips. “I just felt that given the chance, the people in the Bell community could control their own future.”
Soap said the residents of Bell relied upon each other, and found strength in numbers.
“It might not look like it to people coming into our communities, with the poor housing and all this stuff, but behind the scenes, we help each other,” said Soap. “We don’t go out and flaunt it; we don’t publicize it, but it’s there, it’s our way of life.”
Claudette Silver, co-producer, and Heller, stressed the film is not a documentary, but a feature film.
“It’s not a literal re-enactment, but a story based on the events,” said Heller. “Aside from a few white faces, the whole push and direction of the project is inherently native, including the cast, crew and those working behind the scenes.”
The movie is being filmed on location in Bell, and is set to begin Sept. 26. Filming will continue for four weeks.
“And it will be a grueling schedule,” said Heller. “We’ll work six days per week for four weeks.”
Silver said funding for the project was surprising, in that it came from so many areas.
“We had a vast number of resources, many of whom knew Wilma,” said Silver. “We had help from not only the Cherokee Nation, but the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws, along with several other tribes. Many foundations, including the Ford Foundation, came in to help make this possible.”
Heller said they also received support from the Oklahoma Film Commission.
“And the tax rebate program is what finally helped pull it all together,” said Heller.
Heller and Silver said they have employed approximately 20 mentees of Native American descent, who are being paid and gain valuable experience working on the film.
“We’re using them in all aspects of the film,” said Heller. “From camera work, to lighting, to publicity to sound and hair and makeup. It’s a marvelous experience for young people and we’re paying them, albeit not much, but the experience is priceless.”
Silver said Oklahoma has a database for the film industry, and once the mentees complete the project, they qualify to post resumes for future work.
Andrea Walkingstick, 22, joined the team early on, and serves as an office intern.
“It’s really exciting,” said Walkingstick. “I want to go to school to be a script writer, and this will help. It’s really been a lot of fun working with these people.”
Silver said they put out a casting call Friday for the roles of Felicia and Gina Olaya, Wilma’s daughters, and by Saturday morning, they had 40 applicants.
A second, open casting call is set for this evening at 7 p.m., for actors ages 20-60. Officials will be casting principal roles, supporting roles, featured extras and extras, and all body types and looks are requested.
Those interested in participating should bring a monologue of choice to 227 N. Water St. at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 30. The film is an American Indian/tribal preference Screen Actors Guild production.