“Up Heartbreak Hill,” the POV documentary that premieres July 26 on PBS, is centered on two teenagers, Thomas Martinez and Tamara Hardy, who run like the wind. Not hurricane fast, but swiftly enough to place among the top finishers in state cross country and track meets; swiftly enough to attract the attention of college coaches.
The problem is that both youngsters are Navajo, residents on a reservation where the legend of the noble savage meets the reality of contemporary life. The film chronicles the two runners’ senior year in high school.
Thomas was brought up by an aunt and until recently neither his mother, who tried to put him up for adoption, nor his alcoholic father were part of his life. He spends much of his time trying unsuccessfully to reunite them.
Tamara comes from a more stable but almost suffocating environment. In addition to running, she is class president and has top notch academic skills. But her parents want her to attend a local community college rather than a school where she would live in a dorm — and perhaps never return to the res. “Getting off the reservation would really help me, but my mom and dad want me to stay home,” she says at one point. Later, after she is awarded a scholarship, she laments, “What’s keeping me here is my family… When I’m here I feel caged up.”
The film is wrenching and clearly the “Heartbreak Hill” of the title is not only the name of a hill the runners must conquer in a race, but also the emotional hurdles they face growing up. This is the first feature-length documentary for filmmaker Erica Scharf, 29. She talked to The Arty Semite about how difficult it was to stay objective and how her Jewish background helped her.
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