In his new documentary, filmmaker Brian Truglio fused his passion for running with his strong connection to the people and culture of the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The result is Racing the Rez, a documentary that tells the story of contemporary life on the Navajo Nation through the eyes and legs of boys running high school cross-country for the fiercely competitive state championship rival teams of Tuba City and Chinle. For these boys, running provides a release from the challenges of being a teenager and growing up on the Reservation.
“Both teams have coaches who use the sport and the tradition behind it to give the kids the tools they need to face challenges they confront growing-up on the Reservation,” Truglio said.
As a life-long runner and former high school cross-country competitor, Truglio understands the power of running to raise the human spirit in trying times. Just before his senior year of high school, Truglio’s close friend and cross-country teammate was killed in a boating accident. Devastated, Truglio and his teammates ran as part of their grieving process.
“Ultimately, running really helped get me and many of my teammates through the experience,” he said. “Running had a powerful effect on me.”
A person’s teenage years can be a challenging time regardless of their background. Growing-up on the Navajo Nation has presented the boys in the film with challenges that are both universal and unique to their situation. Despite Reservation teams having great success at the state level, Tuba City runner Billy Orman said in the film he feels that cross-country teams on the Reservation don’t receive as much respect as non-Reservation teams. Orman also sees his own running as a way to escape the negative aspects of Reservation life.
“This place is pretty screwed up... alcohol, drugs... running is a way of helping me escape,” Orman said in the film.
Tuba City runner Dennis Klain found his 27-year-old brother’s body after he died from an accidental overdose of painkillers. In the film, Klain said running has helped clear his mind after losing his brother.
Just before starting high school, Chinle runner Jonathan Yazzie’s father abandoned him, his mother and five siblings. Jonathan credits running with keeping his life in order--and him out of trouble.
“All of this time where you’re running with yourself, you start this dialogue with yourself,” Truglio said. “To experience that at such a young age, I think, is really helpful.”
Tuba City state champion runner Ryan Yazzie’s father (no relation to Jonathan) also abandoned him and his family. Ryan’s father eventually died from drug abuse. Ryan hopes to get a running scholarship so he can be the first person in his family to attend college.
“All the boys in the film showed a tremendous amount of courage in the things that they shared with me,” Truglio said. “I think part of it is that they needed to share this stuff, and wanted to share it.”
Truglio first visited the Navajo Nation in 1991 while he was in college. After becoming deeply engaged in a Native cultures class, Truglio spent his winter vacation participating in an assistant teaching program on the Navajo Nation.
“I absolutely loved the kids, I love the culture and I was really taken by it right away,” he said.
The following winter he returned as a participant in the same program. Since then, Truglio periodically visits the Navajo Nation and his many close friends living there. Along with his love of running, Truglio’s close connection to the Navajo Nation played a role in the origins of Racing the Rez.
“I always had it in the back of my mind that I would love to return [to the Navajo Nation] with a project or film some day,” he said. “It [Racing the Rez] really is an intersection of two interests.”
For the past 14 years Truglio has been a video editor working primarily on documentaries, including the Emmy® award winning School Prayer: A Community at War. Racing the Rez is the first feature-length documentary that Truglio has produced and directed.
“My secret wish for Racing the Rez is that I want to make cross-country much cooler to high school kids,” Truglio said. “I really want to encourage kids to go out there and run.”
Interviews were conducted and edited by Ben Kreimer.