Natives in Jeans: Oklahoma Director Al Mertens and His New Film “Lord Finn”

Oklahoma has many filmmakers; let me rephrase that: Oklahoma has many people that talk about making a film, but never do. Al Mertens, however…he was never one of those guys.

I originally met him a few years ago at a screening of Billy Jack that I curated. He introduced himself, letting me know that he was a writer and, really, that was about it. No boasts and no brags, which was really a refreshing change of pace in a filmmaker, one that made me want to keep tabs on him and everything he was working on.

That being said, I recently received an invite to the premiere of his new film, Lord Finn, asking me to bring some friends along as well. Accepted as part of the Third Annual Norman Film Festival, the movie will screen at the Sooner Theatre, 101 E. Main St., on September 14th at 6:30 p.m. As with all films in the festival, admission to this (and every other flick) is free and open to the public. So bring some friends.

Lord Finn tells the story of a mixed-race Indigenous man named Daniel Finley, someone that is struggling with his various mental illnesses, desperately trying to “reconcile love versus inner trauma,” according to Mertens. Along with Daniel, the tale comes together with a storytelling female inmate, a prostitute and a car thief, all in a piece of cinematic art that Mertens calls “operatic.”

“I’d written and directed several short films and two of the three stories in Lord Finn were written as shorts,” Mertens said. “Then I thought it’d be neat to connect them and came up with a third part. My influences on the film have always been things like life experiences, having a curious imagination and God, for giving me the time, patience and focus to see a project to completion.”

His first feature-length film, Mertens took what he learned on the set of his shorts and, in his words, “super-sized” them, from the budget and logistics to having a “relentlessly organized” mindset, struggling with himself to not become too overwhelmed when thinking about the size of project he’d taken on. Probably most important to Mertens, however, was in accurately portraying an Indigenous person on film.

Like Mertens himself—who is Latino and Black—the character of Daniel is mixed-race; many times, when he had a question about something regarding the authenticity of these Indigenous characters, Mertens would ask his cast and crew for advice, a good deal of whom were Native.

Smoke Signals holds the title of the most iconic Native film ever, so I was blown away when its director, Chris Eyre, also kindly provided a couple nuggets of gentle advice during post-production,” Mertens said. “I read an interview with Sherman Alexie, who wrote Smoke Signals, saying something to the effect that he wanted to “see my people wearing jeans and dealing with current issues.”  The protagonist of Finn is homeless and mentally-challenged (toward the end of the film, we see why); we also touch on other issues including substance abuse, childhood trauma and the daily struggle of Natives having feet in two worlds. I feel this is the kind of film Alexie was talking about.”

Currently touring the festival circuit with Lord Finn, Mertens admits that he has a few other screenplays completed, including one that’s a “brutal tale of lawyer-politicians” and an “eerie horror story set in a small town in 1977,” hopefully going into production on at least one of them in 2020. But first, he’s got the Norman premiere to get through in a few days.

“Everything that I—maybe—know about love is contained in Lord Finn,” Mertens surmised. “It has a lot of good things too, like loyalty, friendships and forgiveness. It’s like unscrewing a kaleidoscope and examining the colorful pieces up close. Hopefully those pieces can coalesce to form some measure of beauty.”

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