In the sixth-grade, Donavan Seschillie and his friend Jake Hoyungowa made a dramatic stop-motion film using G.I. Joes. The rest is history.
"I grew up around filmmaking," said Seschillie, a member of the Navajo Nation. He described his youth as a time when he would take photographs with old cameras, and his grandfather would develop the images for him. It seems as though creativity has always been commonplace for him.
Seschillie, now 22, is still making films with his friends. He, Hoyungowa and Deidra Peaches have been collaborating together since childhood. It's sweet to hear the three of them talking together so excitedly, still friends after so many years. Their teamwork is evident even over the phone.
"We all have creative differences, but that works as a strength," said Hoyunguwa. "We use our resources well."
They said they hash out their ideas late at night at Denny's, storyboarding and drinking coffee to stay awake.
Their short film The Rocket Boy is about a little boy named Calvin who has lost his father, and is desperate to find him—so he builds a makeshift rocket ship to aid him in his search.
Though the film is not autobiographical, of course, Seschillie said he drew a lot from his own personal experiences. He grew up with his grandparents, because his father went away when Seschillie was quite young. He said that, in a way, making the film was a bit therapeutic—a way to look back on something and put it to rest.
The Rocket Boy was a very-low-budget film, made for only $600. Though the movie is only 15 minutes in length, it took three years to make, largely due to the fact that the movie-making was an extracurricular activity: Seschillie came to Tucson for school, while Peaches attended Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, so filming was done over school breaks.
Seschillie said he learned a lot from making this movie. "I've gotten better at directing actors," he said. "I wrote the screenplay, but sometimes, actors don't say the lines the way you hear them (when you write them)."
Though the movie turned out well, Seschillie said the final product came out different than he had imagined it would.
"I had a totally different vision of the film," Seschillie said. "I was going toward an independent film with a lot of handheld work, but it turned into its own style."
This style is a big reason why The Rocket Boy was one of 81 films picked for Sundance's Indigenous Shorts Showcase—and if that isn't impressive enough, Seschillie, Hoyungowa and Peaches are the youngest Native Americans who have ever been accepted into Sundance.
When asked how it felt to be invited to Sundance, Seschillie responded immediately with one word: surprising. He'd mentioned a desire to one day go to Sundance in another interview not long before he found out about the film's acceptance.
"We didn't think it would happen immediately!" he said.
Now that Sundance is over, The Rocket Boy is returning home to Arizona, where it will be screened at the Native Eyes Film Showcase, as part of the 18th annual Southwest Indian Art Fair.
Will there be a post-Sundance letdown? Not to Seschillie.
"I like smaller film fests better," he said, adding that he thinks there is too much going on at larger festivals.
What's next for Seschillie and company? They're now aiming to make it into the Cannes International Film Festival in France. Seschillie is also working on a couple of documentaries, both of which are in the early stages of development. On top of that, the group is working on getting a business license and putting together their own production company.