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Film Premiere: Off the Rez Is Hoop Dreams Meets Glory Road

A vicious cycle is defined as a chain of events in which the response to one difficulty creates a new problem that aggravates the original difficulty. Thus is the perceived life on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon. But Shoni Schimmel changed all that.

Schimmel, who just finished her freshman season as the starting point guard at the University of Louisville, had to overcome stereotypes, slurs and financial hardships to make it to where she is today – think Hoop Dreams meets Glory Road. And in Jonathan Hock‘s latest documentary, Off the Rez, that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Tuesday night, you’re taken along for the unforgettable ride.

After playing her first two years at Hermiston (Ore.) High School near her home on the rez, Shoni quickly became known as one of the best high school basketball players in the country. But in order to make the jump to the next level, she and her family – which consists of seven brothers and sisters – knew that they’d have to move three hours east to Portland.

Transferring to Franklin High School for her junior and senior seasons, Shoni was not alone, as her mother, Ceci Moses, took over as the head girls basketball coach. Leading by example, showing her children not to limit their dreams, the story that unfolds is riveting, as mother and daughter battle against all the odds.

“The mother-daughter relationship is so complicated,” says Kelly Ripa, co-host of LIVE! with Regis and Kelly and executive producer of the film. While many people might see Ceci – a former high school basketball star in her own right – living vicariously through her children for the opportunities that weren’t afforded to her, Ripa notes that it becomes evident that her children are actually living through her.

While the basketball highlights are incredible – Shoni finished her senior year averaging 29.8 points, 9.0 rebounds, 7.3 assists and 5.5 steals along with 2,120 points for her career, ranking her sixth on Oregon’s all-time scoring list – it’s the story that keeps you glued to the screen. As so many people before her were said to be “conditioned to fail,” Shoni becomes larger than the game she loves; a symbol for her teammates, her family and Native Americans all over. A modern-day Jackie Robinson.

Through a multigenerational story, Hock captures Shoni and her family at their highest peaks and lowest valleys. From a broken foot midway through her junior year to the bank foreclosing on their Portland home just hours before a pivotal state playoff game, the obstacles they overcome only make you cheer for them harder.

“We were concerned about her ankle junior year and the financial trouble after the season,” says Hock about the struggles of dedicating two years and 96 days of shooting to the project. “But this family laid it all on the line.”

“You have got to believe,” adds Moses. “When I was growing up, I wasn’t told about ‘college.’ Scholarships take you places. I want to teach people, ‘You can do this.'”

With the dream of becoming the first from her tribe to get a college scholarship, it’s ironic that it takes Shoni until her high school graduation to make a decision. But it’s this indecision that drives the film. Will she fall victim to the vicious cycle and stay on the rez? Is she “conditioned to fail” like so many people think she and other Native Americans are? Or will she take a chance, leave her comfort zone and go away to school?

Adds Ripa, “The fear of the unknown can be so paralyzing.”

Fortunately, the risk paid off. This year, Shoni averaged 15.1 points and a team-high 4.9 assists per game for the Lady Cardinals, and was named a First Team Freshman All-American by Full Court Press. She was also a unanimous selection to the Big East All-Freshman team and earned Big East Honorable Mention honors, leading the league (and 24th in the nation) in three-point field goals made with 2.8 per game.

One of Shoni’s greatest concerns when picking a college far away was that her family wouldn’t be able to see her play. As fate would have it, her last game of the season – a Sweet 16 matchup with Gonzaga in nearby Spokane, Wash. – allowed her whole family to come and watch. For the Tournament, Shoni led the team and all freshmen in scoring with 23.3 points per game.

In 2005, Hock premiered Through the Fire, a film that followed the journey of high school phenom Sebastian Telfair, at the Tribeca Film Festival. Six years later, he tells a similar tale – only this time he shows you that ghettos and dreams aren’t just found in the inner-city.

Off the Rez will premiere on Saturday, May 14 at 9 p.m. EST on TLC.

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