Cherokee docudrama reveals untold history: Author takes on directing, producing and composing
Nadia Dean has dedicated the last 10 years of her life to telling a story. It’s a historical account of the complex dynamics of the Cherokee War of 1776, but it’s also a story about relationships, humanity and the decisions that shaped this country. For Dean, who grew up in Haywood County and now lives in Cherokee, it was an untold story that needed telling.
The docudrama “Cameron” focuses on the main character of the book — A Demand of Blood – The Cherokee War of 1776 — who is Alexander Cameron, a Scottish loyalist who came to the new world with nothing and quickly made a name and a life for himself.
While history teaches that the revolutionaries — or “rebels” — were the ultimate heroes as they tried to escape the rule of King George, Dean’s docudrama shows the other side of that narrative. As the revolution was brewing and settlers were encroaching farther on Cherokee land, Cameron was faced with a moral dilemma — does he continue to follow his king’s orders, does he join the revolution or does he side with the Cherokee who have accepted him as one of their own?
“It’s an important chapter in our history and the founding of our country. It raises important questions about what we’ve believed our whole lives about the American Revolution,” Dean said. “I think it’s been a whit-washed and one-sided history, which has been a great disservice for the (American) Indians and the loyalists.
“But I think we have a generation now that’s ready to embrace the kinds of stories that provoke questions that previous generations didn’t want to ask or answer.”
Directing a drama
After eight years of extensive research, Dean published A Demand of Blood in 2014, but somehow she knew she wasn’t done. With the compelling story still in her head and an original score already recorded, Dean wanted to produce a short documentary based on the book in hopes that a producer would show interest in getting the story told on a larger scale.
“My motivation for doing the film was to attract a television series deal — I knew the book would be a great idea for a miniseries,” Dean said.
Dean received a grant from The Graham Foundation in South Carolina to produce her documentary and set out on her first journey as a screenwriter, producer and director.
Her first challenge was trying to figure out how to condense such a long and complicated story into a 37-minute film. The script was based on letters written by each of the men portrayed in the film since Dean’s goal was to stay as close to the book as possible. Because of the tight budget, she chose to tell the story using Chautauqua — a performance style in which actors address the camera directly to provide the story. The style allows for the suspension of belief necessary for dramas while also providing the educational component of documentaries — so a docudrama was born.
With three characters and a narrator telling the story, Dean created a classic Greek tragedy without even realizing it. After all, Cameron’s loyal virtue also proved to be his fatal flaw. He served as a British agent to the Cherokee, he lived among the Cherokee, built his home and family with a Cherokee wife, was blood brothers with Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe and was honored with the title of Beloved Man.
But ultimately, his attempts to prevent war between settlers and Cherokee failed and his trust among the Cherokee was ruined.
“What helped me in scriptwriting was the question, ‘How would I feel if everything I had done out of honor and duty backfired on me?’” Dean said.
Dean’s second challenge was finding the right actors for the job. As a new director, it was important for her to find experienced actors to take on these important roles. David Reed was cast as Cameron, Jon Proudstar as Dragging Canoe, Michael Easler as Col. Williamson and Barrett Doyle as Nathanial Gist, a trusted messenger between settlers and Cherokee.
Reed and Easler came highly recommended from Dean’s assistant director/producer Chris Weatherhead, who had cast them both in “All for Liberty” — another American Revolution film she produced. Several casting directors advised Dean that the role of Dragging Canoe would be challenging to cast — and they were right.
“I really wanted to cast a Cherokee for the part of Dragging Canoe, but I just couldn’t find anyone with acting experience,” she said.
After exhausting all possibilities on the East Coast, Dean found Proudstar, an Arizona-based actor who has appeared in many films about American Indians.
A large portion of “Cameron” was shot in Historic Brattonsville in South Carolina where “The Patriot” was filmed. The town has a preserved plantation setting that closely resembles Cameron’s homestead. Other portions of the docudrama were shot at the Oconaluftee Village in Cherokee, Macon County and Wilderness Road State Park in Virginia.
Behind the music
Dean’s mother sat her down in front of a piano for the first time when she was just 7 years old. She took classical lessons for six years and would eventually go to Nashville to record a singer/songwriter album with dreams of making it big. Her agent was shopping for a record deal and had a promising bite from a label in California. Her music was heavily influenced by her father’s Lebanese heritage, which ended up hurting her musical career.
“But then 9/11 happened and the label said they weren’t interested in promoting an Arab-American artist,” Dean recalled. “I was devastated and depressed. I couldn’t write anymore so I sold my piano. But suddenly when I was researching the book 10 years later, I started hearing music again and started writing again.”
At the time she was writing the book and had no idea when or how she’d be able to use the instrumental pieces, but the sweeping and dramatic arrangements fit perfectly in the “Cameron” docudrama.
“That’s just part of the creative process — you don’t know where it’s going,” Dean said. “There was a divine presence with me and I just trusted that instinct. We recorded 11 pieces and used eight of them on the soundtrack.”
The song “Death Awaits” plays in the film as Cameron is hiding away in his cabin waiting to be captured by the rebels. Dean said the process of writing the song really helped her access the emotions she imagined Cameron was experiencing, which in turn made the story more engaging.
“I just sat at the piano and played for seven minutes straight and recorded it. My producer cut it down to five minutes — I never even learned it,” Dean recalled. “He scored it for me and did all the instrumentation on it.”
The song that brought Dean the most joy was “The Place of the New Green,” which is a more hopeful melody representing how Cameron must have felt arriving in this part of the country and feeling right at home in the mountains that are so similar to Scotland.
“I heard the song in a dream and jumped out of bed to get to the piano before I forgot it,” Dean said.
Still more to tell
As the old saying goes, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Dean says there are many parallel themes when comparing the events surrounding the Cherokee War and the American Revolution and the issues facing the nation today.
“I think the winds of change were emerging after the war — the king was raising taxes to pay for the war and the people felt like the king reached over their heads and over the local government,” Dean said. “… We’re hearing a lot of the same kinds of feelings in people today — this overreach of government and burdensome taxation.”
The docudrama has already received recognition at one of the largest film festivals in the country. Dean won the Platinum REMI Award for directing a historic short at the Houston WorldFest. She also plans to enter the film into the Sundance Film Festival.
Dean hopes “Cameron” will spur interest into making A Demand of Blood into a mini series. She has some promising leads, but can’t release any details at this time.
However, if a larger project does come to fruition, Dean assures that she will continue to be involved in telling the story. With her extensive, original research, Dean is probably the only one knowledgeable enough to keep the story authentic.
In the meantime, she is working on another book called, “Wisdom of Dragging Canoe,” which explores some of those present-day issues that were prophesized by the Cherokee warrior even before the American Revolution.
About the Author
Nadia Dean was born in Columbia, South Carolina. Her Lebanese father and American mother introduced her to a cross-cultural life. From Baghdad, where her father had worked for the U.S. State Department, Dean and her family evacuated at the start of the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1975, Nadia fled Beirut amid heavy artillery fire during Lebanon’s civil war.
At the University of South Carolina, she became a media arts major with an emphasis in photography and film. In Jerusalem, Dean worked as still photographer for the highly controversial PBS film “Days of Rage.” Her photographs of the Palestinian Intifada in 1988 were published in Time magazine, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.
In Washington, D.C., Dean became a daily news correspondent reporting from the White House and the State Department for Emirates Dubai Television. As a member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives news galleries, she produced daily news for Middle East Broadcasting covering U.S.-Middle East foreign policy. Special reports included an interview with Secretary of State Warren Christopher, and for the CNN World Report, a story about Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown’s mysterious death.
Dean had previously earned an FAA Commercial/Instrument Pilot license, which added insight to her coverage of the secretary’s plane crash. Najeeb Halaby, the father-in-law of Jordan’s King Hussein, inspired and mentored Nadia’s flight training career. In 1995, Halaby invited Dean to participate in Operation Peace Flight, the commemoration of the treaty between Jordan and Israel.
Go see it
A public screening of ‘Cameron’ — a 37-minute docudrama based on the historic narrative A Demand of Blood – The Cherokee War of 1776 written by Nadia Dean — will be hosted by the Western Waters Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution at 2 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at The Strand at 38 Main in downtown Waynesville.
For groups who would like to host a viewing of “Cameron,” contact Valley River Media at 828.564.1117.