Name: Kyle Bell
Place of birth: Thlopthlocco Creek Tribal Town, Oklahoma, United States
Occupation: Film director
Kyle, as a filmmaker, do you think storytelling is in your DNA?
Definitely. I think it was in my blood, this desire to speak up and use your voice with a camera, to go out and document things. So I think that storytelling was always built within me, even though I was an introvert in school and really kept to myself… It’s actually really helped me to come out of my shell, and now I love speaking with other people in my tribe, my family, getting ideas that spark an idea for a film. I’m from the Thlopthlocco Creek Tribal Town, and you know, we love telling stories, laughing, joking, so all of that comes with it.
Storytelling is a big part of Indigenous culture, right?
Native people are natural storytellers! Everything is part of the oral tradition, passing things down through words to your children and grandchildren. The stories and tales I get, they all come from my grandparents who gave them to my aunts, uncles, and my mother. In our tribe, in our culture, it's really important to pass stories down, but also to pass our language and our traditional songs down. I grew up around traditional ceremonial dances… Our churches out here, they sing these hymns that date back way to the 1800s. A lot of it has never been filmed, and I'm at an age and time where I really encourage this. These things need to be documented, otherwise they'll be lost. So I love trying to incorporate that in my work.
“I don’t think I could write a story from another place in another world. I don’t know anything about that, I’m not from there, and those aren’t my people. What I know, is right here, right now.”
You’ve made several documentary pieces and a narrative short film that explore your culture… How has it been to see those stories come to life on screen through your work?
Oh, it really makes me feel proud. I just want to put us in a light, you know, I want to show how we really are. A lot of people see Native people in Hollywood movies, like we're living in teepees and on horses all the time — we're not, we're just regular people out here, living in our communities and houses. We play sports, we love basketball just like everybody else, things like that. It's really important to break that cycle of how we’ve been portrayed, you know? Especially with the traumas that we’ve faced as Native people, I hope to use film to bring some light and hope in that respect.
The author Maja Lunde says that she simply writes from “where it burns for her.” This is just where it burns for you.
Exactly, I mean, I don't think I could write a story from another place in another world. I don't know anything about that, I'm not from there, and those aren't my people. What I know, is right here, right now, what I grew up around. That’s something I really respect in filmmaker Spike Lee, who I worked with in the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative recently… He always shows his culture, the life that he comes from, growing up in New York, the music… That’s really inspired me as to what I can put in my own filmmaking. Spike always told me, you know, be proud of who you are, and where you come from, because the only person that can tell these stories is you. I learned so much from him, just seeing his world and how he works, the studio he’s in every day.
It must have been the ultimate learning experience for you as a young filmmaker, getting into the thick of it with such an iconic director.
It was invigorating! I was sitting right next to him, when he was in the director's chair, watching him do his thing. It was really exciting, the attention to detail that he has on every shot, he knows what he wants… I think that's a big thing as a director, you really got to know what you want. I learned a lot of practical things from him of course, like working on dialogue, getting better at writing, working more with actors… But most of all I was inspired by him because filmmaking is his life every day. He wakes up, and that's what he’s doing, he has a ton of projects going at once. The camera crew, the art department, the lighting, you know, he has a hand in all of it — and that is what I want. That inspires me to keep going, to keep creating.
How was it to get that inside view? Apparently growing up in Oklahoma, you didn’t have much of an arts or film community around you.
Yeah, totally. I had one uncle on my mother's side who’s an artist. He’s a painter, and he really encouraged me to do what I want to do and put art in my life. I loved drawing when I was younger, but I come from a really small rural school south of Tulsa, and sports really dominates here, you know, football, basketball especially. We had an art class, but it was maybe a 30 minute class in middle school or something. None of my teachers ever encouraged painting or sculpture or photography. I didn’t even know a career in filmmaking was an option! I didn’t pick up a camera until I was 28 or 29.
Really? What did you imagine your career would be at that point?
I had this insane, crazy dream when I was in high school, like, “Oh, I'm going to go to college and play professional basketball!” (Laughs) It’s a one in a million dream and you’ve really got to be a superstar, and that’s just not reality. But that's what I thought I would do! And then for a while I was just a bit lost, jumping around from odd jobs, I worked at a casino for a bit, I was a delivery driver, I tried graphic design in college… I ended up going to this film festival and that really inspired me. I saved up some money from those jobs and purchased my first camera. I started out taking photos and portraits of family and friends, landscape stuff; that's how I got into it, and then I started making videos, just at events or at a friend’s wedding, things like that.
You ended up teaching yourself everything from shooting to editing by watching YouTube tutorials, right?
Yes! I remember staying up late at night, watching tutorials on cameras, and editing and trying to see, like, what could I do to make my films better? I reached out to one YouTuber that I watched, his name was Griffin Hammond, he was from Chicago. He was coming to Oklahoma, so I met up with him. He also was into cameras and stuff so he gave me a lot of really great advice.
Those kinds of challenges also, I’m sure, pushed you to be a better filmmaker.
Sure, I mean, putting yourself to work like that, it really forces you to be creative. You’ve got to come up with ideas and be creative and make something that you want to make. You learn, and then you practice, and then you create. You build your resume with every project. And that has some benefit! Even now, I learned a lot through documentary filmmaking and now I’m teaching myself how to craft a story, how to create an emotion, how to make a character who is going through this journey… I’m still learning, and I’m getting better. I love that. When you’re learning stuff on your own like I was, you have to think like that. It’s has to be like, “I can do this.” You really have to believe in yourself.