Meet the filmmaker behind Tribeca documentary on Native American girls lacrosse team

Native American teenage girls give their all to the game of lacrosse even if no one else wants them to.

Tuesday marks the world premiere of "Keepers of the Game" as a part of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film festival. The documentary, from award-winning director Judd Ehrlich, chronicles the journey of the girls' lacrosse team at Salmon River High in Fort Covington, New York. Just before their season starts, their funding is cut. For these athletes, however, the challenges facing them are not only monetary. They are an all-Mohawk team from the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. Akwesasne is where the game of lacrosse originated, but since it is traditionally considered a game for men and boys, the girls face additional challenges from family, friends and neighbors as they seek to play. Ultimately they learn to reclaim the sport for themselves.

"Keepers of the Game" is the second collaboration among Ehrlich, the Tribeca Film Festival and Dick's Sporting Goods, which funded the film through the Sports Matter campaign from its foundation. Ehrlich won a Sports Emmy Award for a previous film, "We Could Be King."

Ehrlich sat down with espnW to talk about the film and the importance of storytelling.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

espnW: Thanks for being here, I'm so excited to talk about this film.

Judd Ehrlich: I'm excited to get it out there.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Judd Ehrlich

espnW: I'm curious as to how you got involved with this particular project. What drew you to Salmon River and Akwesasne?

JE: After the success of ["We Could Be King"] Dick's Sporting Goods wanted us to do another film, but they wanted to focus on a girls' team, which I was really happy about. I don't think enough sports stories are about girls and young women, so we set about trying to find great stories. What was so incredible about Salmon River was how much lacrosse means to this community. Akwasasne is where the sport was born.

Traditionally lacrosse is a medicine sport [played to heal] and is traditionally only played by men and boys, so the story of this girls' team trying to get off the ground asks interesting questions. How is the community going to accept them, and what does it mean to these girls to be playing? There is this tension for many of the players who see lacrosse as the game of their people, but experience adversity because traditionally, they are not supposed to play it.

So many of them, however, feel a deep connection to this game because it is so rooted in their culture. I think that is what gave so many of the girls on the team the desire to go against the grain and do it. It does represent something bigger. There's just a sense of not only pride and purpose but also as sort of a trailblazing feeling that they are changing the culture and making it grow.

espnW: Lacrosse is often considered a "prep school" sport, with the indigenous origin of it reduced to a footnote. Telling the story of Salmon River brings that tension to the forefront. How did you approach that tension in your storytelling?

JE: Something that I was struck by whenever I would talk to people about the film is that so many people didn't even know about the Native American connection. This sport was -- and I don't want to say invented because if you speak to someone who is Mohawk and is traditional, they aren't going to say that they "invented the game of lacrosse." They will say that it was "given to them by the creator." -- It was originated on the very land that we were filming on. This is their ancestral game; it is their right.

The culture is a matrilineal culture as well, so it really is the white culture overlaid onto Native culture that has introduced the problems of domestic violence and other problems of a male-dominated society. It wasn't like that before colonization. There's such a history we couldn't get into like native kids taken from their families and put into boarding schools, and the erasure of Mohawk culture.

There is progression in the school where they eventually raise the Mohawk flag, have a Native American Day and hear the kids speak in Mohawk. Their culture is coming into the school. I think we leave on a really hopeful note that is genuine. It's still a sports movie, but I'm really proud of how much we were able to pack into what I think is an entertaining and watchable film. There is a cultural resurgence and a lot of the engine of that is girls playing lacrosse.

espnW: What was it like focusing on young women and girls for this documentary?

JE: Obviously I'm not a female, and I'm not Native American. As I did with previous projects, like "We Could Be King" where I essentially moved to northwest Philadelphia, I immersed myself in this culture. We lived on a Mohawk reservation, filmed with Mohawk kids, and native families in a community with mostly women because those were the important figures in the kids' lives.

This is something I have to think about coming in as this white guy from New York City. For me it's always about really staying conscious of that fact and wanting to always do justice to story, what I'm finding there and how I'm connecting with people. I haven't found a shortcut to just spending time with people, trying to learn things and to earn their trust.

Peter Eliot Buntaine

Salmon River High School lacrosse player Jacelyn Lazore shoots in the documentary "Keepers of the Game."

espnW: It seems like you were really able to get an inside look to Mohawk culture.

JE: We were given so much access. Louise Hern, who is a clan mother and also the mother of one of the team captains, talked to a lot of people to advocate for us. No one had ever done that before from outside the community. Those are things that, that to my knowledge, a lot of people haven't been granted access to, and it came with building trust.

The community really responded to when I told them the mission of the film. Too often, I think, the stories that are told about native communities aren't filled with a lot of hope and inspiration. I think they really responded to that because somebody was coming and doing something different.

espnW: Did you feel prepared for what you experienced?

JE: I did a lot of research before I went, but basically I couldn't prepare myself for what it was like to be there. That's what I always find when reading about a place, a people or a culture. It's so different. To actually be there, I learned so much.

I had great teachers because the subjects of the film became my teachers and my guides. That's what I do as a documentary filmmaker, ask questions and listen. Thinking back to what I learned in history class, I really learned nothing about the history of the state that I lived in. These are people that lived throughout the state and I didn't know anything about them.

There's a scene in the film where a teacher says, "We're like something in history. It's like we're not here." That's a conversation I've had with people who live in New York who don't know that the Mohawk people are still living in New York state. I hope this film provides a window for people into this community that I think people have seen very little about.

espnW: You've sort of talked around this a little bit, but what do you hope people will take away from this film?

JE: Watching a film is such a personal thing. I think people see different things in films and focus on different areas based on their own experience. There are a lot of people who are going to see this film who will be introduced to this community for the first time and who might have misconceptions about what it means to be Native American, what it means to live on a reservation, what it means to play sports. My hope is that people will see this film and find a connection and will see some of themselves, and be moved by it, be changed some way through seeing it.

Sports is such a great entry point to complex stories. It's such an important thing for girls and boys to have access to sports. In this case, you see that it means even more because it's so connected to who these girls are and who they're becoming.

espnW: So what's next for you?

JE: We have a lot of things in the works. I would love to make this a trilogy of films with Tribeca and Dick's. This has been funded by the foundation side of Dick's in connection with their Sports Matter campaign. They've been so incredible in terms of their support and giving us creative control. I'm allowed to go make a movie and they're supportive of it because they feel people are going to see this and understand the importance of sports in people's lives.

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