Director Henry Lu cut his creative teeth working for Wieden + Kennedy, the advertising agency best known for its groundbreaking Nike commercials. But when he read an article about high school runners living on Native American reservations in the Southwest, he decided it was time to make a feature-length documentary film.
Distance running has long been a traditional pursuit among Indians in North America. The lineage of elite runners extends from Deerfoot, the Seneca star from the 19th century; to Canada’s Tom Longboat, the 1907 Boston Marathon winner; to Louis Tewanima, the Hopi silver medalist in the 10,000 at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics; to Billy Mills, the surprise winner in the 10,000 at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Today, the need for Native American youth to exercise has taken on added urgency. Running, Lu notes, is an inexpensive, accessible way to help teens deal with the myriad physical and mental health challenges they face on the reservation, including high rates of Type 2 diabetes and suicide. Running can also lead to a college scholarship, thus providing the means for kids to gain career and life direction.
In “Run to the East,” Lu follows three Native American runners as they navigate school, sports, family and life on the reservation. Their journey to gain the all-important college scholarship is at once inspiring and sobering. The same can be said for Lu’s heartfelt film.
SportsLetter spoke to Lu while he was in Los Angeles to screen the film at the 8th annual Red Nation Film Festival.
— David Davis