Sterlin Harjo aims to inspire compassion for homeless with new film

Sterlin Harjo says he hopes his new film inspires people to treat the homeless with more kindness and compassion. Mekko screens at the 16th annual imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival Oct. 14.

Seminole filmmaker's third feature film, Mekko, kicks off imagineNATIVE film fest

Mekko tells the story of an ex-con who, released from prison after 19 years, finds acceptance in Tulsa's Native American homeless community. The film stars Ron Rondeaux (left) and Sarah Podemski (right). (Still from Mekko)

A Seminole/Creek filmmaker says he hopes his new film, Mekko, inspires people to treat the homeless with more kindness and compassion.

Sterlin Harjo, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is showing his latest film at the 16th annual imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival which kicks off in Toronto on October 14.

Based in Seminole legend

Mekko tells the story of an ex-con who, released from prison after 19 years, finds acceptance in Tulsa's Native American homeless community.

But when a supernatural darkness rises from within the "Street Chiefs," tragedy strikes and Mekko must choose between fighting the darkness or letting it swallow him.

"Once [Mekko's] in that community, [he] quickly identifies someone that he perceives as evil and believes that this person is a witch, a shape-shifter and is there to bring darkness into this community."

Harjo says the thriller is a modern, urban re-framing of a Seminole and Creek Nations boogie-man legend called Stinkini or Big Owl.

Homelessness central to story

While Harjo didn't set out to tackle an issue head-on, the issue of homelessness is central to the film, something he wanted to portray as honestly as possible.

"Film is like storytelling and it's visual storytelling and its speaking with a camera and trying to, for me, express things that have not been expressed before," he explained. 

I'm not talking about homelessness in the film per se. I'm trying to show it and be as honest as I can, as of I was in that community telling someone about it.- Sterlin Harjo , Filmmaker

It is an honesty he took seriously. He spent time at a Tulsa soup kitchen called the Iron Gate where a high percentage of guests are Native American.

When his actors arrived to work, Harjo took them to meet his new friends at the soup kitchen. And he took that a step further by casting homeless people as extras in Mekko.

"That's the audience I care about the most. They recognize the truth in it and know it's not exploitation, it's telling the truth," he said.

In fact, Harjo held a screening of the fim at the very same soup kitchen, where former mayors and soup kitchen supporters mingled with Tulsa's homeless. 

Seminole/Creek filmmaker Sterlin Harjo says Mekko is a re-framing of a Seminole legend of a boogie man named Stinkini. (Ryan Redcorn/Facebook)
"We're kind of all hanging out and showing a film that kind of represented [the homeless community] so it was a really good feeling to do that."

Harjo said if there was one message that people should carry after seeing Mekko, it would be one of kindness and compassion.

"I feel like with all my films, whether it's about native people or whether it's about people on the streets that happen to be native, I try to paint them as real people and show that there's good, that there's bad, that they're humans and it is on us as a community to help those people."

You can catch Mekko on the opening night of the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival in Toronto, on October 14.