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“Skydancer” Q&A with Margaret Mead Filmmaker

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Skydancer-body-image

Jerry McDonald Thunderloud works as a connector in New York City. 

© Katja Esson


Over 10,000 Native Americans of the Mohawk tribe live on the Akwesasne reservation in upstate New York—and every family in the community has included an ironworker. For decades, these men have weekly made the six-hour drive to New York City to build its tallest skyscrapers. Katja Esson’s film Skydancer, which will be shown at the Margaret Mead Film Festival on Sunday, November 13, at 2 pm, follows a group of Mohawk “sky walkers” as they continue the craft of their forefathers, spending weeks apart from their families and risking their lives for a job that pays well but also perpetuates superhuman stereotypes of Mohawk men.

Following the screening of SkydancerBear Fox andKatsitsionni Fox, who appear in the documentary, along withRobby Baier, the composer of the film’s score, will perform traditional Mohawk songs. Esson, who will attend the Mead Festival screening of the documentary and participate in a Q&A immediately afterward, recently answered a few questions about the film.

You were born in Germany, but your films often feature American subjects. What’s particularly American about this story?

I was always intrigued by the legend of the Mohawk ironworkers, but my interest in creating a film was sparked by the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11. Mohawk ironworkers from all over the country rushed into the rubble of Ground Zero to help with the cleanup despite the strained history between Native Americans and the United States Government over issues such as sovereignty and land disputes. I wanted to learn more about these men who live on the fringe of American society and yet are American down to the bone.

Much of the film is about the place of Mohawk identity in modern America and a world of assimilation. How does Skydancer offer a new take on the subject?

While there have been other films about Mohawk ironworkers, most have taken an outsider’s ethnographic perspective and treated the subject as a “curious” cultural phenomenon. I tried to look from the inside out by tracing the personal stories of several Mohawk ironworkers who are building the cities of the future while trying to re-build their native traditions as well.

Did any important footage not make it into Skydancer?

Once I was accepted into the families, I spent a lot of time with the Mohawk women and found their stories especially compelling. I filmed many scenes and moments with the women that did not make it into Skydancer, which mainly focuses on the men. But I am now working with Mohawk filmmaker Katsitsionni Fox on a film about the women in the community with the working title Skywoman, based on the Mohawk creation story.

Click here to see the Margaret Mead Film Festival line-up and to watch trailers, or visitmead2011.sched.org to buy tickets and make a personalized schedule.

Homepage Image: Jerry McDonald Thundercloud, one of the Mohawk ironworkers in Skydancer © Katja Esson

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