‘Off the Rez’ Debuts at Tribeca Film Festival

Shoni Schimmel was like many other teenage girls with a gift for the game of basketball. Ranked among the top 100 high school players in the country, she practiced and played hard and hoped for a Division I athletic scholarship. But Shoni, a Umatilla Indian, faced the unique challenge of living on a reservation and the sense of isolation that created.

The documentary film “Off the Rez,” which premiered Tuesday evening at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and will be shown on TLC on May 14, chronicles Shoni’s junior and senior years of high school and the decision by her parents, Cecilee Moses and Rick Schimmel, to move the family off the Umatilla Indian Reservation so Shoni could get the kind of athletic exposure she needed. Moses, once a gifted basketball player and track athlete, accepted a job coaching girls’ basketball at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore.

Under Moses’ guidance and with Shoni and younger sister Jude playing, the team goes from being an underdog to owning a winning record. The film showcases Shoni’s flourishing talents on the court, and the pressure of increased expectations off of it. It also shows the young athlete dealing with the financial strain her college hoops dream puts on her family.

On the upside, the move did increase Shoni’s national exposure, as college recruitment letters began arriving almost daily. The desire was for Shoni to go to one of the best college programs in the country, someplace where she could win, which has happened.

“For Shoni and her family, the goal was to be able to deal with the outside world and to achieve in the outside world without changing who you are inside and without losing or abandoning values,” says the film’s director, Jonathan Hock.

Schimmel’s story reveals a great deal about the barriers — external and internal — that have prevented many American Indians with talent from getting athletic scholarships. Hock says even he was shocked by how stark reservation life is and how enormous the psychological gulf is between people living on and off the reservation.

One of those who tells the story most poignantly is Schimmel’s cousin, Billy Quaempts, an extraordinary basketball player in the early 1970s who was unable to take that step to college. Quaempts received letters from several colleges, but he says he honestly didn’t know what to do with them.

“What I’m hoping is that the example of Shoni, Ceci and the family is that the inability of the people before you who were as talented as you doesn’t mean that you can’t do it,” says Hock. “The whole film is the parents taking the family off the reservation so that it can all happen.”

Shoni recently finished her freshman year at the University of Louisville. As the starting point guard she led the team in assists and was second in scoring. The team made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

“The human drama of this story has always been first and foremost in our minds,” says Eric Black, TLC’s director of production for “Off the Rez.” “Beyond simply telling a story, we do hope it’s inspirational to Native Americans and to everyone. It shows that it’s possible to achieve success and stay true to your roots and who you are. One of the missions of TLC is to give insights into other worlds and to do that in an entertaining and inspiring way.”