In memoriam: Filmmaker Bennie Klain
By Leighton C. Peterson
Acclaimed Navajo filmmaker Bennie Klain, Honágháahnii (One Walks around Clan), born for Táchii’nii (Red Running into the Water Clan), left this world to continue his journey on Sept. 9, 2021.
He was from Tó Nehel????h (Red Lake/Tonalea, Arizona) on the Navajo Nation.
Klain was a Navajo artist in a film world dominated by non-Natives, a role that he took on with spunk, drive, and a strong voice.
“As a Navajo filmmaker, I have an acute awareness that my narrative, technical and artistic decisions have vital implications,” he said, “especially as my stories concern Native American representations and histories.
“Ultimately, responsibility for honest representation lies with the director,” he said. “This requires trusting your voice.
“The projects I undertake engage the challenging task of bridging Native concerns and social commentary with broader artistic and audience considerations,” he said.
When he could, he was always willing to help his Diné filmmaking community as a mentor or an extra pair of hands.
Among his many movie credits, Bennie was director of the award-winning documentary “Weaving Worlds,” a film that sheds light on past and current dilemmas confronting Navajo weavers, their arts and their culture.
“Weaving Worlds” was unique as a major documentary film in its embrace of the Navajo language and Navajo perspectives.
It was co-produced by his production company TricksterFilms, with Vision Maker Media and ITVS.
The film premiered at the 2007 SXSW Film Festival and had its broadcast premiere on American Public Television in 2008.
“Weaving Worlds” won numerous awards, including best documentary feature at the Black Hills Film Festival (2010), an award of commendation from the American Anthropological Association (2008), a special commendation from the Royal Anthropological Institute (2011), and the Deuxieme Prix de Rigoberta Menchu for social justice films at the Montreal First People’s Festival (2007).
The film was also a nominee for best documentary feature at the Native American Film Festival in San Francisco (2008) and the ImagineNative Film Festival in Toronto (2007).
“Weaving Worlds” was transformative for Klain. As he told it, “My reluctance to acknowledge the cultural value of my own Navajo background is something I struggled with in the documentary ‘Weaving Worlds.’
“I learned that embracing myself and my language only increased my potential as a storyteller,” he said, “celebrating our collective ideals and values through this unique medium and offering insights into our shared humanity.”
Bennie also directed the documentary film “Columbus Day Legacy,” a look at race, history, and what it means to be an “American” through the lens of the ongoing Columbus Day parade controversy in Denver.
“Columbus Day Legacy” was co-produced by Vision Maker Media and premiered on public television stations in 2011 by the National Educational Television Association.
The film won best documentary short at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco and was nominated for the “Big Sky Award” at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (2011).
“Columbus Day Legacy” was also awarded best in show in the Classification X film category at the 2011 Santa Fe Indian Market and won a special jury prize for bridging cultures at the Arizona International Film Festival.
Bennie also co-produced and directed “Share the Wealth,” an eight-minute, 35-millimeter experimental narrative that situates a homeless Native American woman on a busy street corner.
“Share the Wealth” premiered at the 2006 Smithsonian Native Film + Video Festival in New York City and aired on the PBS series “The Territory.”
Bennie was the founding partner of Austin, Texas-based production company TricksterFilms and was an avid marathon runner for years, traveling the country to compete.
Before earning his bachelor’s degree in radio-television-film at the University of Texas at Austin, Bennie was an Associated Press award winner for his Navajo language newscasts with KTNN Radio on the Navajo Nation.
He premiered two films at the Sundance Film Festival. The first was in 2000 as co-producer of the acclaimed activist documentary “The Return of Navajo Boy.” The second was in 2002 as writer/producer/director of the narrative short “Yada Yada” that views the events of Sept. 11, 2001, from a Native perspective.
From 2002 to 2006, Bennie was the Native programming liaison for the annual Ciné las Américas film festival in Austin.
He was a 2004 and 2008 nominee for the prestigious Rockefeller Media Fund Fellowship, a 2008 nominee for the USA Fellowship, a 2011 Native Arts & Cultures Foundation Fellow, and a Sundance Institute Fellow for multiple years.
A grave side service was held Wednesday in Tonalea. In lieu of flowers, a GoFundMe campaign has been set up to assist the family with expenses at https://gofund.me/201dc1fd
Leighton C. Peterson, Ph.D., is a founding partner of TricksterFilms. He was the producer of Klain’s projects, including “Weaving Worlds.” He is currently an associate professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.