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Documentary Breaks PBS Records

Documentary Breaks PBS Records


When President Obama declared November National Native American Heritage Month, he did so with a call to "celebrate the contributions and heritage of Native Americans during this month, we also recommit to supporting tribal self-determination, security, and prosperity for all Native Americans."

That call is a bit too late to offer security to Fred Martinez, but a new film, which broke audience records earlier this year and is now available on DVD, both documents Martinez's life and the long history of different perceptions of gender and sexuality among the Navajo Nation. Fred Martinez, a Navajo boy who was nadleehi, or male-bodied person with a feminine spirit. When Fred was 16-years-old, Shaun Murphy bludgeoned him to death for being different. The film interweaves the tragic story of a mother's loss along with Native American cultural traditions that once held places of honor for people of integrated genders. Being nadleehi was, in ancient Navajo culture, a special gift but in modern culture Martinez was not honored; his brutal murder made him one of the youngest hate-crime victims in modern. But the film brings home the resounding message that being true to oneself is the bravest thing anyone can do.

The film, which aired on PBS's Independent Lens, was screened 1,495 times across 140 stations for 19 days in June. It broke all records for audience engagement in the history of Independent Lens and it received the audience award as the highest-rated film of the 2010-11 season by online voting and other measures of audience support, according to PBS. Over 150 nonprofit partner organizations participated in special screenings attended by over 50,000 people in 100 cities nationwide. In those 19 days 5,000 people commented on the film and over 2 million read about it on Facebook.

Filmmaker Lydia Nibley was a big part of that engagement, telling, "The conversations online have been flat-out amazing. People are truly interested in the complexities of gender -- beyond superficial sound bites and divisive rhetoric -- they want to really understand more about what it means to be masculine or feminine, or some rich combination of the two as Fred Martinez was. And people do really care about being fair and respectful and honoring others for who they are. We're in this together -- LGBT and Two-Spirit people, and straight allies alike. These are our families, our relationships, our connections to colleagues and friends. I love Navajo Two-Spirit and scholar Wesley Thomas's statement in Two Spirits, 'We're all human, we're all the five-fingered people.' I think about that often."
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