In the News

STAR Filmmakers Tell Their Stories

Arizona Daily Sun | BETSEY BRUNER Arts & Culture Editor | Posted: Sunday, July 31, 2011 5:10 am |

4e31c07e24f2f.imageTaylor Long, left, and Larissa Luther, both 12, stand next to their media instructor, Rachel Tso, inside the multi-purpose room Thursday morning at STAR Charter School on Leupp Road. They are standing in front of the backdrop they normally use when conducting film interviews. The students have taken two summer video workshops with Tso and are members of her regular media arts class, which began July 20 at the school. They helped on "Redbird Saves the Corn," one of the five STAR student films being shown at the annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture next weekend.

In the shade of a strawbale building on the campus of STAR Charter School, two girls hovered over the viewscreen on an HD video camera, wondering why they couldn't see the image better.

"It's a neutral density filter," explained Rachel Tso, their media art instructor. "When you're outside, you need the ND filter."

The students, Taylor Long and Larissa Luther, both 12, worked this summer on the film "Redbird Saves the Corn," which is a traditional Spider Woman story told through lightbox animation.


Tso is in her third year of teaching film students at STAR, a K-6 school located about 25 miles northeast of Flagstaff on Leupp Road.

It is the nation's first solar-powered, off-the-grid public school campus.

Students pick their subject matter for films, often dealing with culture and sustainable living.

Films produced thus far have asked some of these questions: How do you make kneel-down bread? What are the benefits of solar power? What are the traditional peacemaking techniques on the Navajo Nation? How do you conduct a sweatlodge ceremony?

Visitors to the annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture next weekend will have these questions and more answered by a group of these young filmmakers when they screen five of their films on both days of the festival.

About eight of them will be at the museum to present their films, Tso said.

"The kids are really excited to go to the museum," Tso said. "These film projects are really good for the kids, to have their voice heard, to have adults commenting on their work is just invaluable."

Tso, who is of Scottish and Jewish ancestry, is married to a full Navajo, Francis Tso.

The couple has two daughters, Camille Manybeads Tso, 16, and Bahozhoni Tso, 5.

Camille has been mentoring media arts students at STAR and helped produce the three newest short films.

Tso, pregnant with their third child, is looking forward to a semester of eager film students.

They will learn steps to making a film, including pre-production (like brainstorming ideas), how to frame an interview, how to write the treatment, use of video and sound equipment, how to edit and how to speak to an audience.

"For me, I see the polishing is when they present their work," she said.


The students and the films will enhance the theme of the festival, "A Walk in Beauty," which will highlight two days of cultural immersion in the Navajo experience, bringing prominent musical performers, a traditional dance troupe and Heritage Insight talks from the region's experts, all to the museum and its grounds.

The festival will also gather 75 artists from all corners of the Navajo Nation at the museum, continuing the tradition of bringing artwork to market that began in August 1949, when 15 trading posts submitted 10 of their best rugs to the museum to compete for prizes.

"The festival's theme of 'A Walk in Beauty' describes the weekend's experience well," said Robert Breunig, MNA director. "It's a lovely way to spend a high country summer day among the Flagstaff pines, here at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, or in Navajo, Doo'Ko'osliid."

This year's entertainment under the big tent is some of the region's best, and there will surely be a monsoon shower or two."

In a benefit for their school, the students already presented and screened some of their films July 16 during a cultural and musical event at Pepsi Amphitheater at Fort Tuthill.

"They just did the Fort Tuthill presentation, and this time my students will able to talk about their films, talk about the subjects and the process of making films," Tso said. "For these kids to have an opportunity to do this at the museum, it's just amazing."

She said students sometimes opt to make a film instead of write a paper.

"Also, films are accessible; people are more willing to take five minutes to see a film than read a paper the kids have written," she said.


The STAR School opened Sept. 10, 2001 (the day before 9/11), with 23 students in grades one through six. By the beginning of 2010, the school reached the maximum of 130 students pre-school through eighth grade.

It was an inspired way to beautify a roadside junkyard halfway between Flagstaff and the Navajo reservation community of Leupp.

The school's name, STAR, stands for "Service to All Relations," a concept common to Navajo and other Native American cultures that stresses accountability and care for an individual's surroundings.

Founders Kate and Mark Sorenson, 20-year ranchers in the area, rely on solar power in their home and wanted to pass on the lifestyle to students, most of whom either live in rural homes near the school or in Leupp.

"We have built in green values from ancient times -- to take care of the Earth," said Mark Sorenson, who is the school director. "It's so gratifying to be able to speak about our interconnectedness with all things."

A federal grant from the Safe School/Healthy Students Initiative helps fund various programs at the school, including the peacemaking code at the school, which is demonstrated in the "Star Peace Making" film.

"We're a place-based education school," Sorenson said. "This area has a long history of having Navajo families, so, we have a philosophy that stems from the core values we find in Navajo peacemaking. It's so wonderful to have their videos so they can show how they do it."

He added values that come through Navajo are really universal.

The curriculum at STAR is also project-based. Projects vary and include building a greenhouse, planting gardens, tending wildlife and, of course, making films.

"The wonderful thing about the films is that they can be lessons to future students and to other people, like we are doing at the museum," he said.



Five student films will be shown at MNA

Students with the Star Media Arts Program will be screening five films on both days at the Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture at the Museum of Northern Arizona.

The films deal with a variety of subject and are as follows:

1.) "Redbird Saves the Corn," a traditional Spider Woman story.

2.) "Ta'che'e'," a short documentary on the sweatlodge ceremony.

3.) "STAR Energy," using solar and wind power, selected Best of Fest at the Arizona Student Film Festival.

4.) "Nitsidigo'i'," telling the story of how to make kneel down bread.

5.) "Do'koo'osliid," a youth-made film about their community's relationship with the San Francisco Peaks.

If you go ...

WHAT: 62nd annual Navajo Festival of Arts and Culture

WHEN: Saturday, Aug. 6, and Sunday, Aug. 7, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

WHERE: Museum of Northern Arizona, 3101 N. Fort Valley Road

ADMISSION: $7 adults, $6 seniors (65+), $5 students, $4 Native people and $4 children (7-17).

INFO: Call 774-5213. For a complete listing of festival events, visit

Betsey Bruner can be reached at or 556-2255.

Copyright 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Posted in Arizona Daily Sun Entertainment on Sunday, July 31, 2011 5:10 am Updated: 10:58 pm.


STAR students win notice in Venice

By Levi J. Long
Special to the Times

Navajo Times, LEUPP, Ariz., Sept. 22, 2011

At STAR School, a group of creative youngsters are showcasing their talents and voices on a worldwide cinematic stage.

"I like to put a lot of heart into my films," said freshman Kira Butler, 14, whose film work at STAR School has already taken her across the U.S. and to Italy. "Through filmmaking I understand who I am in the world community."

Located 15 miles northwest of Leupp, STAR School serves mostly Navajo students from preschool to 8th grade.

Nestled among rolling hills with vistas of the San Francisco Peaks, the rural school is the first off-the-grid campus in the country powered by wind and solar energy.

Now STAR School is gaining another reputation for its 3-year-old media arts program that connects Native American youth with their culture, community and themselves.

"When it comes to mainstream media, indigenous youth are often seen in the negative or are portrayed as historical or cultural subjects in the past," said Rachel Tso, the media arts educator who developed the film curriculum. "It's important for students to represent themselves using their own voice, not someone else's."

Students from fifth to eighth grade can learn the nuts and bolts of film making: script writing, researching topics, interview techniques, capturing video and sound, editing, acting and public speaking.

The main focus is on what Tso terms "place-based media arts."

"It describes what we're doing with our students through film," she said. "It reconnects kids with their community, reconnects their place in the community and reconnects them with their family, including their elders."

TOP: Kira Butler, from the STAR School in Leupp, Ariz., is interviewed by an Italian journalist at the Venice Film Fest.

star2After wrapping an on-camera interview, Nole Yazzie, 13, an 8th-grader, wants to remind people of tribal history. His student group is working on a documentary about the Navajo's Long Walk with interviews of local elders.

"My hope is it brings back those stories. It's been over 100 years, it's important to talk about and not forget," he said.

Films subjects have ranged from heritage foods, sustainable living, traditional Navajo peacemaking and making artificial snow from reclaimed wastewater for a ski area on the San Francisco Peaks.

They also use different storytelling techniques including lightbox animation for the film "Red Bird Saves the Corn," a traditional Spider Woman story. The school's Web site has a complete listing of student films.

Students have won first-place awards at the Arizona Student Film Festival and have screened their work at festivals in Austin, Texas, Seattle, Phoenix and Flagstaff. STAR School films are scheduled to be shown Oct. 12-16 during the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival.

STAR School founders Kate and Mark Sorenson said the film classes are an excellent example of "place-based learning."

"Our program's philosophy is to get kids connected with the place where they live, to have a voice of where they are in that place," said Mark Sorenson, director of the school.

With a long educational career of working with Navajo students, the Sorensons opened the charter school in 2001 with a mission to incorporate a curriculum for place-based learning.

The educators chose the name STAR, an acronym for "Service To All Relations." It is part of the school's philosophy, which follows the Navajo teachings of k'e.

Sustainable and green practices are taught through classes about how to build a greenhouse and raise a garden. Both topics are among many featured as short documentaries.

"The films allow students to use their voice to get people to listen," said Mark Sorenson. "If students were writing a term paper, only their teacher would read it. With films, you might have hundreds or thousands of people see and learn about their Dine culture, and we're thrilled about that in a big way."

STAR School was featured in the documentary, "Valdagno, Arizona," directed and produced by the Pyoor Collective, a group of international writers and filmmakers, which was recently screened at the world-renowned Venice Film Festival.

The film follows Umberto Marzotto, an Italian songwriter who travels to the Navajo Nation to find a better understanding of himself. The film features interviews with Leupp residents, the metal band Blackfire, and former Miss Navajo Nation Radmilla Cody.

The film crew visited the school this summer where they met Butler, who was working as a student film camp mentor.

Impressed with the young, film savvy students, the crew did interviews about the school and its media program and its mission to bring cultural and place-based learning to students. They included clips of the students' films in the documentary.

Because of her film work, Butler was chosen to attend the Venice Film Festival for the film's premiere.

"The experience was amazing," said Butler, whose weeklong stay in Italy included a whirlwind of press interviews, festival screenings and sightseeing.

"This has definitely made me want to pursue a career in film," she said.

She has one other hope.

"It's important to inspire each other to do their best," she said. "I would like my films to inspire others and to be a resource for all my relations. It feels good to be an example for Native youth, to help kids and to show them anyone from a small rez town can do whatever they want."

To learn more or to watch STAR student films, check out and click on the multimedia link.

BOTTOM: Kira Butler, from the STAR School in Leupp, Ariz., filming in Venice, Italy, with a Flip camera she won at the Arizona Student Film Festival.

-----------------------------------------------------------------Rachel Tso: Inspiring future generations

Inside NAU  Northern Arizona University

By Julie Lynn Bergman

December 15, 2010

With a background in environmental and indigenous issues, Rachel Tso's decision to pursue NAU's master of arts in sustainable communities just made sense.


"The program gave me a lot of freedom to design what I wanted to learn and take classes from multiple disciplines like history, anthropology and communication," Tso said. "The required classes that I wasn't as excited about turned out to be the most meaningful of all—they really opened up my eyes to new ideas which then snowballed into my thesis."

Her unconventional thesis is actually a film documenting a "place-based media arts" demonstration project—a film documenting the making of a film—showing how to put technology in the hands of youth for them to use it to learn more about their communities and the environment. An accompanying handbook shows educators how to implement "Place- Based Media Arts" into their curriculum.

"Placed–based media arts" is a term coined by Tso to describe her process of working with students to create media arts that help to "generate and sustain community histories, address language loss and build intergenerational relationships."

But for her thesis, Tso decided to bring the project even closer to home. She gave her then 13-year-old home-schooled daughter Camille an assignment—to interview a community elder and create a media project about what she learned.

Camille decided to interview her grandmother and to make a film for her project. After listening to her grandmother, she was taken with the story of her great-great-great grandmother Yellow Woman who was forced on the Long Walk in 1864—when Navajos were forced at gunpoint to walk for 18 days into an area of New Mexico.

Camille spent a year writing and polishing her script and recruiting family members to star in her movie, In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman. Her film debuted in the fall of 2009 and has since been in 38 film festivals around the world. Because of her film, Camille also earned a scholarship to Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, an elite boarding school for talented high school students where she now attends.

"The best part of getting my graduate degree was having the opportunity to do a meaningful project with my family," Tso said. "The best part of the program was the support that I received. Sandra Lubarsky, the director of the program, believed in me and kept rooting for me. Her encouragement was key."

Tso continues to put her theories to the test at work as a teacher at the Star School, a completely solar-powered school located 30 miles east of Flagstaff.

"Media engages kids naturally," Tso said. "In studying sustainable communities, sometimes you come across the belief that technology is harmful. But I believe it's better to teach our kids to harness the tools needed to navigate through the corporate-sponsored world that surrounds us."

Her work with the students there has been so successful that the school is planning to build a Center for Placed-Based Media Arts in the next year.

"Rachel's instruction in filmmaking is giving these kids a powerful voice that allows them to express what they love about themselves and their culture," said Mark Sorenson, director of the Star School.

---------------------------------------------------------------Students learn Media Literacy through 'Safe Schools' Grant

Link to original Navajo-Hopi Observer Article

S.W. Benally
09/21/2010 4:51:00 PM

Rachel Tso is the facilitator of a new media literacy program at STAR school aimed at helping students illustrate the Navajo peacemaking system on film.


FLAGTAFF, Ariz. - Thanks to the Navajo Peacemaking and Safe Schools Project, Navajo students are helping pilot a media literacy program at the STAR School. The students work under the direction of filmmaker/writer Rachel Tso.

Tso finished setting up a state of the art, self-contained media classroom "in a box" last week, including a professional HD camera.

"We could film Star Wars with this if we wanted," Tso laughed.

Tso is working with seventh and eighth grade students on a film illustrating the Navajo peacemaking system, including an adaptation of the process by Dr. Mark Sorensen, director of the STAR School, that he calls "Playground Peacemaking.

"The film will be distributed to schools and YouTube so that the whole world can access this unique information," Tso said.

Tso's interest in filmmaking and television was piqued when she starred in a children's television pilot in Florida as a clown at age 17. This led her to the environmental communications department at Antioch College in 1992, where she made several films.

"My senior project was a 30-minute documentary on the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute called "Crimes Against Humanity (1994),' she said.

Tso learned about the relocation issue through Antioch's cooperative learning program.

"A Seneca woman, Marcy Elter, showed a Big Mountain slideshow," Tso said. "I was studying environmental communications, and needed an issue I was interested in."

Elter's work led Tso to volunteer through Veterans Peace Action Team, and she was placed with Jenny Manybeads [the lead petitioner in the First Amendment lawsuit, Manybeads, et al v. US] for the summer of 1992. She returned the following summer to seek permission from the Tso family to shoot her senior project.

Back at Antioch, she immersed herself in preparations for her documentary, and honed her skills in shoot-back philosophy - a style that puts the camera in the hands of the people the story is about.

"I returned in the summer of 1994 with a Jeep full of camera equipment and proceeded to teach the youth of Mosquito Springs how to use it and how to make a documentary film," Tso said.

Francis (Tso's future husband), Tim, Calvin and Juanita Tso and Esperanza Begay took the lead in the project, working under the guidance of Rachel Tso.

"They wrote their own documentary treatment and planned the interviews," Tso said. "We spent three months filming the land dispute area, Peabody Coal Mine, and the New Lands. They learned all the aspects of pre-production and production - camera, sound, lights etc."

At this time, technology had not advanced to allow film editing on a computer, so Tso rallied her crew to travel to Antioch's editing suites to finish the film. Only Francis could make the journey.

"Together we transcribed all 1,200 hours of tape," Tso said. "He translated all of the Navajo, and we edited the film, 'Crimes Against Humanity' together, finishing the film in December, 1994."

By this time the pair was an official couple, expecting their first daughter. After graduation, Tso returned to the reservation.

"Living in Mosquito Springs with no electricity made it impossible to finish the post-production work the film needed," Tso said. "I realized if I could get involved with the local school, possibly starting a media department there, we could get the equipment needed to finish our film."

Tso enrolled in a distance learning program with Prescott College, earning her second bachelor's degree in Education. She developed a love for teaching.

"Teaching has always come easy to me, and in a way I suppose I have always been a teacher," Tso said. "With three little sisters and a brother, all of whom are much younger than me, I took on that role since I was 10. I 've been a camp counselor and taught drama classes at the YMCA since I was 15. I did an internship at a Waldorf school while at Antioch.

"Having Camille [Tso's daughter] helped me realize that positively influencing the future generations was probably the most effective and deeply meaningful form of activism I could do. So while student-teaching at Rocky Ridge, I truly became a teacher."

While teaching at STAR School during the '09-'10 school year, Tso volunteered with students to create other films, including Nitsidigo'i', illustrating fellow teacher Jane Dempsey's lesson on how to make kneel-down bread, a Navajo staple food with STAR students.

"The film students took first place in their category, Sixth through Eighth Grade Micro-Shorts, five minutes and under, at the Arizona Student Film Festival," Tso said with pride. "They also took the grand prize, which won them a flip camera."

Tso's daughter, Camille, now a young teenager, has followed in her mother's footsteps with her own award-winning documentary, In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman.

"I was home-schooling Camille that year and I encouraged her to make a short film in lieu of a research paper, so I could write about the power of indigenous youth reclaiming oral histories through film for my thesis. She, however, took it much further than the bounds of the original assignment and made something much more complex and creative than I had planned. I taught her the filmmaking elements she did not already know, mostly in pre- and post-production."

These skills added to those in production that Camille had learned from Outa Your Backpack workshops (led by Flagstaff filmmaker and journalist Klee Benally).

Tso enjoys her daughter's success, but admitted that at first she worried that Camille had adopted her dream.

"But after watching her become obsessed with and filming the story of her ancestor, Yellow Woman, I know for sure that she is doing what she loves. It just happens to be what I love as well," said Tso.

"Now I feel like I am finally able to realize my own dreams. I got caught up in the activism world and motherhood, and learning how to truly be a teacher. I'm still on the same track I started back in 1992, but now I'm much better - wiser, more mature and smarter. Now, I see my dreams coming to fruition - in Camile, in my students at STAR, and in the possibilities of the future," said Tso.

The Navajo Peacemaking and Safe Schools project is federally funded by the Safe Schools/Healthy Students program. The SS/HS vision is a nation of communities with integrated systems that promote the mental health of students, enhance academic achievement, prevent violence and substance use, and create safe and respectful climates. The SS/HS Initiative supports school and community partnerships in their efforts to develop, coordinate, and implement research-based programs, effective policies, and innovative strategies through a comprehensive plan focused on positive mental, emotional, and behavioral health for children and youth.