It’s truly the era for Indigenous voices, especially in the film and conservation communities. Visit With Respect’s newly released short documentary, Respecting the Past, Preserving the Future, is a powerful example of this, using film to highlight Traditional Indigenous Knowledge of local Tribal members and leaders with ties to Bears Ears while informing the public about responsible visitation. The film’s director, Sahar Khadjenoury, was central to this vision – and Visit With Respect program director, Semira Crank, recently sat down to learn more about Sahar’s journey as a filmmaker.

at work. SaharSahar behind the camera.

When initial plans were being discussed, Sahar’s name kept coming up as a potential director and editor of this film. Not only did she bring extensive experience, but she was also from the Bears Ears region. She had worked with other renowned organizations surrounding Bears Ears National Monument, including Utah Diné Bikéyah. She’s also a producer at First Nations Experience (FNX TV), a national broadcast television network committed to Indigenous programming, which includes series, documentaries, art, nature, and many other significant cultural content. Some of her films were also featured in various film festivals. And her familiarity with the region made her stand out: she knew about the history of Bears Ears, she was familiar with the cultures, and more importantly, she already brought an innate passion for protecting her traditional homeland.

It started with a school project

Sahar grew up in Aneth, Utah, approximately thirty minutes from the nearest boundary of Bears Ears National Monument. Her clan is Naakai Dine’é, born for Persian. Growing up on her family’s ranch and living with her maternal grandmother, Sahar learned early on what it meant to be respectful – of both her culture and land. While her parents were working toward their degrees, Sahar stayed in her maternal grandmother’s home that had no electricity or water. But, as Sahar said, “I learned the way things can be done without relying on technology or modern conveniences.” She appreciates her early years because it taught her to be self-reliant but also determined. “The words ‘K’é, Kinship and Community’ are essentially what led me into media,” she said. Years later, when a devastating house fire took away the beloved home she once lived in, Sahar realized that material, tangible items could be taken from you at any moment. This deeply shifted her outlook on life. “It’s better to build relationships with people because those things can’t be taken from you,” she reflected.

When she was sixteen, Sahar took a step back and looked at the land she grew up on, especially her family’s ranch. One of her science classes at Whitehorse High School was discussing land issues and climate crises, and she realized something important was being left out of the discussion. Aneth and neighboring small Navajo towns are known for their oil reserves. Since 1953, major oil companies like Shell and Texaco have extracted oil in this northern region of the Utah Navajo Nation. Although the Navajo Nation had been granted royalties, it was not until the early 1970s to late 1990s when local Navajos began to question how oil development was impacting their lands. “If there is improper clean-up after a spill at any of these particular sites, I wanted to find a way to actually do something about it,” she said.

1000009974Sahar hard at work on the Visit with Respect documentary.

Sahar understood that if she were to tell a few people about how the oil spills are going to contaminate the underground aquifers and drinking water, they might not do anything about it, or worse, they wouldn’t care. And being a teen, her opinion could be easily dismissed. Then she realized something profound: “The best way to reach a big group of people is using video as my new medium.” With her classmates, she created a 90-second PSA that addressed the negative impacts of oil and uranium on Navajo Nation lands. The response was huge: They entered Utah’s First Annual Pollution Prevention Video Contest and placed first, and the PSA was broadcasted on the PBS Station. From this experience, Sahar knew she wanted to create change through filmmaking. 

Months later, she submitted a science project and environmental study to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which brought together more than 1,000 students from forty countries around the world. While there, she wore her traditional Navajo clothing, including a tsiiyééł (traditional Navajo bun), moccasins, turquoise jewelry, and her velveteen outfit. Many people asked questions like, “If you’re an Indian, how do you speak English so well?” or “Do you ride a horse to school?” This experience startled her awake. “I thought, ‘Wow, I really need to do more with this video stuff because I need people to be aware of what’s going on back home and if they think I’m this archaic character from this stereotype – how are they even going to know we have problems back home with keeping our water clean?” These conversations sparked a motivating force behind her passion to use film to share stories that are often unknown and unheard. 

Forging a new path

Although she felt strongly about highlighting important realities, cynical comments kept her from fully taking a seat in the director's chair. So she started in theater, modeling, and fashion. By using these skills, she was still able to keep close to the film industry. For years, she established a knowledgeable foundation for herself and worked many jobs both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. But when she received word her mother was battling cancer, Sahar started to rethink her video journey that started when she was sixteen. Ultimately, she didn’t let go of her motivation to create stories that could spark change or initiate uncomfortable truths. She couldn’t bury her feelings of wanting to be behind the camera, so she attended the University of Utah and received her Bachelor's Degree in Film and Media Arts. 

She directed and produced multiple film projects that included highlighting the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Movement (MMIP), the Indian National Finals Rodeo circuit, Indigenous Couture Fashion line, and ultimately, Bears Ears National Monument. “Bears Ears is my backyard. It’s where I’m from. So it was meant to be,” she said.

Planning a documentary

In Spring 2023, Sahar signed up to be the co-director of a short Visit With Respect documentary. Before learning about the Visit With Respect guidelines, Sahar knew that she had to be respectful when she was recreating outdoors, but she never heard of a campaign like this. Upon finding out that individuals had left human waste in structures and were defacing rock imagery, she was left feeling stunned. “These are historical treasures and I did not even realize this was even a thing. To this extent, I had no idea. You don’t know what you don’t know until somebody shows you. But it’s also - how many other people don’t know?” 

This documentary became more than an educational asset to her, and ultimately transformed into a lifelong purpose. “I took the project on because I needed to create something visual for people to understand,” she said. “I think the best way to reach somebody beyond text on paper is through video. And this is my way of lending my support.” 

Building and fostering meaningful relationships

20230922 131041Sahar capturing the hard work of Ancestral Lands Conservation Corp Zuni Crew 663.

When production began in Summer 2023, Sahar dusted off her hiking boots, stocked up on memory cards, and charged her equipment. Filming began with the Bears Ears Summer Camp hosted by Ancient Wayves. Through her lens, she captured and edited together a story audiences across the southwest could feel, hear, and see - that children and their connections to the outdoors is something that can’t ever be replaced. Indoor classrooms and reading can only do so much, but by capturing the sounds of their laughter, their facial reactions of being on a raft for the first time, and the development of new friendships, these were all human experiences she wanted everyone watching the film to lock into their memories.

When Fall 2023 came, the next group to be filmed was the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corp – more specifically Zuni Crew 663. For two days, Crew 663 built buck and rail fencing, put up kiosk signs, and fixed the trails – and Sahar’s job was filming them. She paced back and forth getting different angles and asked them question after question getting to know them. She immediately took to them and they to her.  “When you encounter a group of youths who are excited, passionate, and motivated about something they genuinely care about, they are unstoppable,” she said. “Meeting Crew 663 was so refreshing! And it was really exciting to see young people pick up the work, internalize it, Indigenize it, and then care for the land and create such a beautiful synergy amongst themselves.” Her time filming young adults who were incredibly spirited and energetic reminded her why she wanted to build relationships with people - because these relationships, positive memories, and hopeful experiences couldn’t be taken from her. 

Paving a path forward

IMG 3331Visit with Respect program Director Semira Crank with Sahar and Lewis Williams, founder of Ancient Wayves and BEP Boardmember.

In most, if not all, Indigenous cultures, storytelling has long been the basis for connecting with people, but especially to connect with generations after. Film and the decades upon decades of influence it’s had on society and culture has always created spaces for people to take a deeper look into important issues and the solutions that are needed. With prominent leaders like Sahar behind the scenes helping to bring unheard voices to the forefront, people will feel hopeful and motivated. With this film, we hope the Indigenous voices and stories build a solid understanding of Visit With Respect. This campaign that started almost a decade ago is one of the many solutions we’re hoping visitors to this beautiful region can take in, digest, and always visit with respect. 

As for the younger generation, Sahar’s interaction with Crew 663 and the Summer Camp youth, she believes that the work being passed down to them will continue to flourish. And, if there’s one major thing about the youth today, it’s that their eagerness to be heard is relentless and unwavering. “I hope young people get to see other young people on camera doing cool stuff and they become inspired,” she said “I think the takeaway is that when the next generation is focused, motivated, and has found their passions, nothing can stop them.”

You can watch the film online at