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Navajo teen with a camera and a cause wins White House visit for short film

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

By Tara Terregino

WASHINGTON – Keanu Jones just wanted to tell stories of his Navajo people when he picked up a camera several years ago, never thinking that his “simple 3-minute film” would bring him all the way to the White House.

“It’s incredible,” said Jones, 18, whose film was one of 15 selected from around the country as part of the second annual White House Student Film Festival.

Jones, a senior at Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, said he hopes his film on his family’s daily struggles helps raise awareness about the fight for water and other natural resources taken from reservations.

The American Film Institute helped select the videos, which were on the theme of “the impact of giving back.” Students behind the 15 winning films, some as young as age 6, were at the White House Friday where they got to screen their movies for an East Room audience of filmmakers and celebrities, including Steve McQueen, the Oscar-nominated director behind “12 Years a Slave,” and Academy Award-winning actress Hillary Swank.

“These aren’t just great films, but they’re a great example of how young people are making a difference all around the world,” Obama said to applause from the audience.

Obama used the event to unveil his “Call to Arts” initiative through the Corporation for National and Community Service to help inspire and mentor young artists across the country. The program will work with the American Film Institute, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, whose members have pledged to provide 1 million hours of mentorship to young artists over the next three years.

Keanu’s film, “Giving back the Navajo Way,” told of the Navajo tradition of serving elders despite the sometimes-arduous work needed to do so in Indian Country. Keanu said “simple necessities Americans enjoy like electricity, automatic heaters and running water” may be non-existent in the rural area of Arizona where he is from.

Keanu said that using film lets him capture his people’s culture and life, and he hopes it will educate all those who watch.

After their White House visit, the winning filmmakers had other Washington visits planned, including workshops at the Newseum with filmmaking professionals.

Keanu said his invitation to the White House was an honor, not only for him, but because he is representing his family and his being Native American culture. But he still seemed surprised after the festival.

“I’ve never really thought that making a simple three-minute film would even take me to the White House or to see Obama,” Keanu said.