Behind the Scenes with Navajo Police: Class 57 Creator and IAIA Faculty Kahlil Hudson
Navajo Police: Class 57, a three-part vérité-driven documentary series following recruits and officials at the Navajo Police Department’s Training Academy, is now streaming on HBO. The series, directed by Kahlil Hudson (Tlingit), Alex Jabslonski, and David Nordstrom, owes its creation to Hudson, IAIA Associate Professor in the Department of Cinematic Arts and Technology. “I had been looking for a bigger project to work on for my sabbatical,” he shares. He proposed the concept to IAIA and got to work. “I didn’t have any funding. I didn’t have HBO on board. And so, it was kind of like a ground-up project where I first went out and met with the Navajo PD. So, I met with Chief Daryl Noon, who was the deputy chief at the time.” Hudson spoke with Noon for three hours. “I proposed doing a project of some sort to him. He had his training commanders all there at the meeting as well. And so, we did a Q&A session at the end of that meeting. They all basically voted in support of the project.” Noon told Hudson that they would accommodate him in whatever he wanted to do. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m mostly interested in telling the story around the academy’ because I was looking for a story that was tied to tribal sovereignty.” Significantly, the Navajo Nation is the only tribe with its own police academy.
Hudson hand-picked IAIA students and alums to join the crew on the series, from camera work to post-production. “You know, we have a lot of talented students here in the film program. I mean, in all departments, but in the film program, there are, and there’s a diversity of interests as well,” Hudson explains. “So, we have students that are interested in sound, we have students that are interested in pursuing careers in sound and in cinematography, and so yeah, I brought in a couple.” Navajo Police: Class 57 Producer Priscilla Naunġaġiaq Hensley (Iñupiaq) and Camera Operator Echota Killsnight (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma) are both seniors pursuing a BFA in the Cinematic Arts program. “Priscilla, who’s a senior—she was our main producer out in the field,” says Hudson, “I mean, she was there. She was out there as many days as I was … some of the people that we filmed with, she knows better than I do because she was in constant contact with them, texting them, calling them—and so, the whole rapport-building…” Hensley and her spouse had previously directed WE UP: Indigenous Hip-Hop of the Circumpolar North, produced by the Anchorage Museum. With that extra experience, Hudson knew “that she could handle the job.” Hudson met Echota Killsnight when Killsnight previously attended IAIA. “And I still work with Echota. I hired him for something I shot for Patagonia a couple months ago.” says Hudson. “And so yeah, I see that. I see the skill sets … So, I need a camera operator. I’m gonna hire the best camera operator that I know from the school.”
Four BFA in Cinematic Arts alums also joined the crew—Director of Photography Leroy Grafe ’19, Sound Mixer Michael Bozzuto (Taos Pueblo) ’23, Production Assistant Tyrell Etsitty (Diné) ’23, and Production Assistant Rayne Kingfisher (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) ’22. “A lot of my projects that I’ve done in the past—small projects, bigger projects—I’m usually traveling, I’m usually flying somewhere. And, so, I was looking for a project like this that was within driving distance,” Hudson shares, who had IAIA students and alums in mind from the get-go. “I mean, that’s not how I landed on this project. But I certainly saw it as an opportunity to bring in as many students as I could. And so, it was a little bit out of necessity as well, just because I needed crew. I knew that I wanted to bring on as many Indigenous crew members as possible.”
“I think having Navajo—Diné— crew is important,” Hudson emphasizes. “One of our DPs is Navajo—Shaandiin Tome (Diné). She lives in Albuquerque. And then, and she’s a fantastic film director in her own right.” Tome recently co-directed a documentary short, Long Line of Ladies, about a Karuk coming-of-age ceremony. Hudson met Tome, a University of New Mexico grad, from her prior work as a director of photography on IAIA student films.
After the Navajo Police Training Academy gave the go-ahead, Hudson put together a small producer team. “We went to a production company, Concordia Studios, and pitched them the project. They were immediately interested in the project.” This was a major win—projects produced by Concordia Studios have been Oscar nominees, and the company is well-known in the industry. “So, we spent about a year putting the pitch materials together,” he shares. “I went out for about ten days and shot a bunch of interviews and rode along with officers. We put together that pitch tape, which ended up being about six minutes.”
Next, Hudson and his team pitched the project to networks. “Our production company advised us that we’d be lucky if we got one offer. And I think we got four or five,” he reveals, listing Hulu, Netflix, and HBO among the offers. “So once we were greenlit, we’re all set to go to start filming, actually, in 2020. And the pandemic hit, and so we had to push until the following year. And so, we started filming, and part of it was that this is a—it’s a follow doc, it’s a vérité-driven documentary. So, we’re filming life unfolding as it happens, and everyone wearing masks makes it difficult to just connect with characters, see emotions, see who’s even speaking, right? So, we all kind of collectively decided, like, let’s wait.” The team filmed for 123 days, producing enough content for three more episodes, and “spent close to nine months editing.” As is evident in the final series, Hudson and his team had remarkable access while filming on the Navajo Nation, which was built through spending time with the participants and allowing them space to decide how to engage. “And so, we spent a lot of time just going out there, and not filming at all, and hanging out and just talking with the potential cadets. We did that for class 55. We did that for class 56. And then once we started filming for class 57, you know, we even met people in class 57 that were—knew people in the other classes,” he shares, also mentioning that he went out to eat with the cadet’s families.
“I rode around with now-President Buu Nygren—Navajo President,” Hudson says. He also spent time with outgoing Navajo President Nez. “Now, and we were gonna make that a whole section of a segment in episode three, where there was kind of this political thing that was happening while they were out in the field, but we ran out of time, and just didn’t have the space. So, but that’s still a documentary I’d like to make—is a story about the Navajo presidential election, because it’s fascinating.”
While Hudson may have fulfilled his dream of having a project on HBO, he’s not done there. Hudson already has several documentaries in the works with streamers and other production companies. Learn more about Kahlil Hudson and follow his work at www.kahlilhudson.com.
To learn more about IAIA’s Cinematic Arts and Technology program, visit our website.
Quotes have been edited for clarity and brevity.