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Q&A: Native filmmaker Emerson talks debut novel ‘Shutter’  

‘Shutter’ was published last summer. (Courtesy Ramona Emerson)

Diné writer and filmmaker Ramona Emerson published her first novel – “Shutter” – in the summer of 2022 to quick critical acclaim. The book has been longlisted for a National Book Award in fiction.

Originally from Tohatchi, New Mexico, Emerson spent 16 years as a police department photographer in Albuquerque documenting crime scenes. “Shutter” is about a forensic photographer named Rita who, like Emerson, is a member of the Navajo Nation. The ghosts of the crimes she documents haunt the character, as do Navajo taboos about death.

Emerson, who grew up on the reservation, currently lives in Albuquerque with her husband, Kelly Byars (Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma). Emerson and Byars run the production company Reel Indian Pictures.

The Seminole Tribune recently caught up with Emerson to ask about ‘Shutter,’ her films, and what’s next. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

“Shutter” is set in Albuquerque. How would you describe its significance to Indian Country?

Albuquerque has a distinct and solidified reputation as a border town – a town that depends on Native commerce – but doesn’t necessarily treat Natives well. Indeed, as a Native woman in Albuquerque, I never have and never will really feel safe. There is a reputation that these towns hold – an effect of colonialism I suppose – that is all about policing and incarcerating Native peoples but not supporting them or their culture.

There have been efforts made to change this, but they fall short. Albuquerque has also seemed to build its reputation on the television series ‘Breaking Bad’ [and] ‘Better Call Saul,’ for being kind of a beacon of crime. As a resident, I can tell you this town has some pretty out of control crime and violence at its center. It really is the perfect place for ‘Shutter’ and Rita to be because the city needs them.

The town, however, is central to so much of Indian Country – a centuries old meeting place for all of us to come together, and it’s beautiful – surrounded with mountains and the best food in the world.

Have you always been a writer? What has the reaction been to the book?

Fiction allows me to include actual experiences as well as completely made up situations, and I don’t have to tell anyone which is which. That allows for some real freedom. I have written sparsely throughout my life. I’ve never really been a journal keeper, but I’ve written a few screenplays and a ton of grants. But I think I chose film to tell stories because, to be honest, I don’t like to write. I’m good at writing and I’m blessed to have that superpower, but it is something I have to talk myself into. I’m certainly not eager to sit in front of a sheet of blank paper when I can pick up my camera and start building a story with the push of a button.

It has been a smooth and pleasant transition into the publishing world from the film world. I’ve found so much support in the last year, far more than I’ve ever had in 25 years of making films, so I am so grateful for ‘Shutter’ fans, for my publisher, my editor and everyone else who never gave up on me.

Your documentary film work, like ‘The Mayors of Shiprock,’ doesn’t follow a typical Native narrative – what you’ve described as “poverty porn.” Is it hard to create Native films that aren’t formulaic or stereotypical in terms of Native identity?

That is the issue with documentaries. I think funders have a real preconceived notion of how they see Native stories in film and how they want or need you to tell the story. Funders need drama, they need the narrative arc, and they need you to follow a formula that they have developed that tells them this is what a successful documentary film looks like. I say we should dictate our own portraits of our own communities the way we see fit. Indigenous communities have earned the right to tell our own stories the way we want to tell them. Our narratives shouldn’t be told the way the standard bearers dictate. Our histories are passed down the way we want our children to remember it and it pains me to see outsiders dictating our stories, or worse, telling our stories for us and calling it Native film.

What’s next for you?

I have three films and a four-part docuseries currently in various stages of production and I need to finish them in the next two years or so. I am also writing the sequel to ‘Shutter’ and there will be a third and final installation as well. So I have a lot to do in the next few years. I’m blessed to be able to do the work.

Author and filmmaker Ramona Emerson. (Courtesy Ramona Emerson)
Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at