“I just hope they know we’re not like other white people,” says Yeva Chisolm to her boyfriend in filmmaker Erik Sanchez’s short Sage Me Not.
In the film, Chisolm’s character is grappling with her unbelievably cheap rent, to which her boyfriend (Peter Holt) hypothesizes, “That’s what we get for living with all the Mexicans.”
“Babe!” Chisolm’s character replies. “They’re not Mexicans, they’re Indians!”
“I believe they prefer ‘American Indians,’” Holt’s character replies wryly.
It’s funny, then it’s sad, then it goes back around to funny again, all in the span of a few short seconds. But in those seconds emerges an insightful glimpse into how white folks, even allies, can think, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Sage Me Not is an official selection for the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival’s New Mexico Shorts program this year from relative newcomer Sanchez (Shoalwater Bay, Chinook and Chicano), who directed and penned the film. Shot in crisp black and white, it’s the tale of a white couple who moves into a home built on an ancient Indigenous burial ground—also funny—where they start to feel a presence that may or may not possess at least one of them.
No amount of appropriative smudging seems to do the trick, however, so Chisolm’s character enlists the neighboring medicine man (played by Sanchez, whose line “Woah, you can’t use that word...that’s our word,” in response to Chisolm’s declaration of whiteness might be the funniest thing I’ve seen this year) to help out. All at once, Sage recalls lighting and pacing properties akin to The Blair Witch Project, noveau-horror digital soundscape scoring creeps and simple special effects to seal the deal. Is it perfect? No, but it’s poignant despite its shortness and a sort of sly nod to any Indigenous viewers who deal with white folks on the regular (the irony of being a white guy writing this is not lost on me, for whatever that’s worth).
Sanchez is currently rounding out his junior year at the Institute of American Indian Arts in the film program. This year, he won a George RR Martin Scholarship to continue his studies, and if Sage Me Not is one of the products of that endowment, then that’s money well spent, George.
“During the pandemic, I started watching a bunch of scary movies,” Sanchez tells SFR. “And while what I was watching wasn’t as scary as what was on the news, this thing about Indian burial grounds kept coming up—so I kept looking for the Indian ghosts, but never saw one. That’s where the script came from.”
Indeed, the horror trope of the burial ground generally deals with how such a thing might affect the white folks who’ve moved onto stolen land. Sanchez’s film does that, yes, but his own medicine man character provides much-needed perspective—and the white folks are so over-the-top absurd, it’s hard to feel anything but glad they’ll be haunted. Sanchez shot the film during the height of the pandemic with Chisolm and Holt, both also IAIA film students, after his original film idea was postponed during remote learning. As luck would have it, he’d checked out some equipment from the school already, and between that and his horror binges, he formed the idea. The whole process, he says, took about five days and was lit and shot simply.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is tell stories,” Sanchez explains. “But I still think of them in a non-colonial way. I just want to live on the Rez and barter, like, if I’ve got a cool story, can you feed me or house me for the night? Now, though...living here and seeing what New Mexico has to offer, I think I could do something with that storyteller skill.”
Not bad for a guy who, a few short years ago, was living through one of the worst periods of his life at a community college in Seattle. Sanchez arrived there on another scholarship, but says the predominately-white student body didn’t know what to make of him or his film ideas. Having grown up in California almost exclusively embracing his Chicano heritage, a subsequent move to Yuma, Arizona, found Sanchez learning more about his Native roots from his women elders, particularly his aunt. Springboarding from there, Sanchez came to Santa Fe and IAIA, which helped him further embrace and explore his Indigenous side.
“People here are giving me the OK to tell my stories,” he tells SFR, his smile audible over the phone. “The community is really supportive and I know there are other stories within me.”
Up next is a feature-length senior film, on which Sanchez is currently working. He also dabbles in photography, writing and many other ways to tell stories.
“I feel grateful,” he says. “I just feel grateful to be here, for my school, my film program, to be in an audience...”
He trails off, but I’m sure he could come up with more examples.