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2017 SBIFF Movie Spotlight: “Tribal Justice”

Justice in America is never easy. It can be unfair or harsh, but what happens when strengthening your community becomes the priority? The Native American tribal courts offer a unique perspective on what we know state and federal courts to be.

I was very intrigued by how how much tribal courts emphasize strengthening communities rather than applying swift justice to punish the offenders. This is definitely a documentary film that will teach you something new about our country that you may not have already known, while showing us what the possibilities are if we put our communities first.

As former U.S Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, “The tribal courts both incorporate traditional values and hold up an example to the nation about the possibilities of alternative dispute resolution. [They] have much to offer to the tribal communities, and much to teach the other court systems operating in the United States.”

“Tribal Justice” will be among the dozen documentaries chosen to be in the Social Justice Documentary Competition at the 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival hosted by the Fund for Santa Barbara.

Watch the movie trailer below.


Two Native American judges reach back to traditional concepts of justice in order to reduce incarceration rates, foster greater safety for their communities, and create a more positive future for their youth. By addressing the root causes of crime, they are providing models of restorative justice that are working. Mainstream courts across the country are taking notice.

Q&A with Filmmaker Anne Makepeace

What inspired you decide this was a film you had to make and that this was a story you needed to tell?

I have always been interested in Native American stories; in fact my last film, We Still Live Here , which is about the revival of a Native American language, also premiered at SBIFF.

When Ruth Cowan, our executive producer, approached me in 2013 with the idea of doing a film about the innovative work of tribal judges in California, I was hesitant because I didn’t know anything about tribal courts. I agreed to go on a research trip to meet two judges, and right away I was smitten. Abby, Chief Judge of the Yurok Tribe, which is the largest in California, awed me with her fierce intelligence and commitment to justice; and Claudette White, Chief Judge of the Quechan Tribe near Yuma AZ, moved and impressed me.

I realized that not only were there two amazing characters to follow, but there was a really important story that could have impact on mainstream justice systems by modeling more humane and personal forms of justice.

Everyone in the film seem so open with their lives. Were they this welcoming when you first approached them or was there resistance?

Ahh now there’s a story. Claudette in fact opened her life to us early on with a generosity of spirit that was amazing, but it was extremely hard to find a case to follow in her court. She was willing, but those coming into her court were very reluctant to have their lives invaded and their stories told.

It took two years to find a case to follow from beginning to end in her court. Luckily we were also able to follow the story of her nephew, Isaac, whose case was in state court rather than tribal court, with predictably negative results. With Abby it was almost the opposite; she was able to give us total access to her courtroom and cases, but she was very protective of her private life.

What were some of the challenges you and your crew faced in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

Let me count the ways…Well, one big challenge is that I live on the East Coast so I couldn’t get to our locations easily. It was always a huge challenge to know when to go out to one or both of the tribes. Then once we had stories to follow, again figuring out when to be there was a huge challenge.

One thing that really helped was that my cinematographer, Barney Broomfield, lives half the time in LA so there were a number of times when he went alone both up north to Yurok Country near Klamath, or out to Winterhaven. He’s amazing as a one-man band.

Another issue that we all face as documentarians was funding. This film was very hard to raise money for and we were always operating on shoestring. I didn’t have an associate producer, a sound person, production assistants – I had to wear many hats and that was hard. Fortunately Vision Maker Media came in early and kept us going for a year; California Humanities came through just in time at the end of 2014; then MacArthur saved us at the end of 2015, and NEH funds in 2016 enabled us to finish the film (which we just did yesterday).

What did you learn after making this film that you didn’t know before, either about the process of filming or the topic or subject being covered?

One thing I learn over and over again about the process of documentary filmmaking is that things never work out the way you plan, and you just have to go with it and trust that something good will happen or you’ll figure out how to make the story work eventually. My motto is film everything, though you pay for that in post-production when you have hundreds of hours of footage to turn into a 90 minute story.

I didn’t know anything about tribal courts when I started, so it was a steep learning curve but so rewarding. The great thing about documentary filmmaking is that every time, you enter a whole new world, meet people you never would any other way, and learn so much about whatever the issue is.

Was there anything you left in the cutting room floor that, had there been more screen time, you would have loved to include in the film?

Oh yes, killing those darlings. One big regret is that there were entire stories and characters we followed at Yurok for two years that didn’t make it into the film. One was a beautiful young mother and former meth addict whom Abby’s court is able to reunify with her four children. But there were just too many characters for audiences to follow, and the film is the right length.

I had originally envisioned it as a one-hour doc, but the stories kept growing and fortunately my funders agreed to the length because the wonderful PBS series POV agreed to broadcast it as a 90-minute film.

What was your favorite moment in making this film?

My favorite moment in making this film was when I screened the fine cut for Abby in New York in early November. She was there for the opening of Anna Deveare Smith’s “Notes from the Field,” in which Anna impersonates both Abby and Taos Proctor in this wonderful performance about the school to prison pipeline. Abby was silent at the end, which was scary, but then she thanked me so warmly I nearly wept.

There’s so many life lessons one can take away from the film, but if there was one thing you really, truly wanted audience to leave the theater with after watching “Tribal Justice”, what would that be?

Well, here’ something that Abby wrote the day after the election:

“We, our people, have been here before…and as before we will stand for what is right and good…they will come for us and others and we will not turn our backs on those who need our protection…we may not win but we will not quit…we will never forget our sacred responsibility to all as we have been taught by our creator and as we have promised our ancestors…stay strong my family…”

That kind of wisdom and resilience is so deeply moving to me. Another thing Abby once said is, “We never give up on anybody.”

Have you been in contact with any of the individuals you highlighted in the film?

Yes! Both judges are coming to the premiere on Feb 5 th , which is very exciting. Our last shoot at Yurok was in September and at Quechan was in I guess March of last year, so we’ve been in touch pretty much the whole time.

What does it mean to you to have your film premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival?

It is AWESOME! I lived in Santa Barbara from 1986 – 2003 and have so many wonderful friends there who are coming to the screening. Leaving freezing Connecticut for Santa Barbara in February is a dream too. It’s an honor to be part of the festival and I really can’t wait to be back.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for including me on your program!


Sunday, February 5 – at 7 p.m. – Lobero Theater Monday, February 6 – at 11:40 a.m. – Metro 4 Theater, Screen 3

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