Jim Fortier (Metis/Ojibwe) sits in the hot Arizona desert and stares at the location for his latest documentary, Bad Sugar.
This is no glamorous Hollywood movie set; there are no celebrity actors and no expensive special effects. This is a film about real people.
Bad Sugar is a documentary about the Pima tribe located in southern Arizona. The Pima, traditionally farmers, lost their primary water supply when the Gila River was damned in the early 1900s. Most struggle to find food, shelter and clean drinking water. About half of Pima residents have been living in poverty for the better part of a century. They also live in a place that has one of the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world.
Because of this extremely high rate of diabetes, the Pima community has been the focus of a lot of media attention. It was for this reason that when Fortier was first contacted about a job as a director and producer of Bad Sugar he was unsure if it was a project he wanted to pursue.
“At first I was kind of hesitant when they said it was about diabetes and they were going to focus on the Pima community…that’s kind of a hot-button issue,” Fortier said. “Then when they told me what their approach was and how they were going to look at this, the disease, and the historical and underlying social determinants and the causes of it I thought, well, that’s something new.”
The film will be shown as part of the Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick? series that will be aired on consecutive Thursday nights from March 27 to April 17 on most PBS stations across the country.
Fortier, 45, has been working in the film industry since graduating with a degree in broadcast communication arts from San Francisco State in 1987. After graduation, Fortier spent a few years working lighting for smaller productions in order to work his way up in the film industry. He started his first documentary; Alcatraz is Not an Island, in 1995.
“It really takes a lot of motivation to do your first film because it’s such an uphill battle,” Fortier said. “That was a real learning experience.”
The film took almost seven years to complete. When it was released, Alcatraz is Not and Island was recognized with a NORCAL region Emmy for directing. Fortier was also invited to show his film at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001.
“That clearly was the highlight of my filmmaking career,“ he said. “I’ve been trying to match that kind of success and that kind of fulfillment ever since then, and it’s been difficult. I hope to match that again in both quality and importance.”
Since Alcatraz is Not an Island, Fortier completed a handful of films before being contacted about Bad Sugar. His plans are to stay within the genre of documentary for at least the near future. Mostly because he would like to perfect his current art before moving on to something else.
“I don’t feel like I’ve mastered the art form by any stretch of the imagination,” Fortier said. “I think I would rather be a really, really, really good documentary filmmaker before I try and go out and do a drama.”
Documentary films also have some other benefits. Bad Sugar, for example, can be viewed as educational for the thousands of Native Americans struggling from diabetes. Fortier hopes that his film will help people understand that diabetes does not have to be a part of Native American identity.
“I want people to understand that just because your Native doesn’t mean you have to be a diabetic,” Fortier said. “It’s become part of what it means to be Indian. Diabetes is somehow intricately connected to that, and it doesn’t really have to be that way.“
by Zach Oliva