Rolex Connects Gifted Young Artist with Dream Mentor, Spike Lee

How does a young Native American filmmaker from Oklahoma find a mentor in Spike Lee? With help from Rolex, of course.

Article by Luke Benedictus

The emerging director and Rolex Arts Initiative protégé Kyle Bell (left) with his mentor, the filmmaker Spike Lee, at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York. Photography courtesy Rolex.The emerging director and Rolex Arts Initiative protégé Kyle Bell (left) with his mentor, the filmmaker Spike Lee, at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York. Photography courtesy Rolex.

“My mind was just kind of blown,” Kyle Bell admits. “Because from where I come from, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen.” The 35-year-old filmmaker is speaking over the phone while driving through the wilds of Oklahoma en route to shoot a scene for his latest short film. He grew up not far away in Glenpool, outside Tulsa, as a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation Native American tribe. This, he concedes, is not the standard background for a budding director, particularly one who now has the chance to collaborate with the legendary director Spike Lee. Bell is still processing how it came about. “Coming from where I came from, trying to teach myself how to make films out here in Oklahoma…” he trails off. “I don’t know how to explain it. But I felt really empowered and encouraged.”

The facilitator of this partnership between Bell and Lee may seem equally unlikely. Rolex is renowned, first and foremost, for making superlative watches that have become universal totems of status and success. What Rolex is less known for is connecting world- famous directors with Native American up-and-comers from the rural Midwest. Yet this is exactly the sort of work that Rolex has quietly done for many years. The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative was created in 2002 as a philanthropic program. It seeks out gifted young artists in a variety of disciplines from around the world and pairs them with recognised masters of their chosen milieu for a period of creative collaboration. Rolex manages to enlist some big guns. Past mentors include David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, David Chipperfield, Toni Morrison, Mario Vargas Llosa, Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

The way it works is this: every two years, Rolex assembles an advisory board who propose a list of potential mentors. Once the mentors are recruited, they discuss the profile of the sort of protégé they would like to help. A committee then identifies potential candidates from all over the world who are invited to apply. A shortlist of finalists is then whittled down to a chosen few, who meet the mentor for an interview that determines the ultimate selection. “It was so nerve-racking meeting Spike and showing him the films that I’ve done,” Bell recalls of his interview, which took place at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Lee is a tenured professor of film. “But the whole time he complimented me on my eye for storytelling and even my cinematography. It was just really encouraging to hear someone of that magnitude tell you your work is good.”

Lee picked Bell to mentor having been drawn to the young filmmaker’s determination “to tell those stories that don’t get told”. The pairing seems like a natural fit. Much of Lee’s early work drew heavily on his personal experience: 1988’s “School Daze” recalled the director’s college days, while “Do the Right Thing”, released the following year, recognised the racial tensions he grew up with in Brooklyn. “A lot of Spike’s work comes from his own culture,” Bell agrees. “Maybe he chose me because I’m trying to do something similar about where my tribe is at now.”

The protégé admits that had he not picked up a camera in 2014 his life would be completely different. Before discovering his vocation, Bell did various jobs, from working in a casino to delivering furniture. “A lot of those things motivated me to want to do something with my life that I could one day look back on and be proud of,” he says. “For me, that was film, that was cinema. And I feel like if I can get a chance to tell a story with a camera and make a living out of it, then I’ve already won. I get to do what I love for a living.”

To figure out how to use a camera, Bell started off filming family events and friends’ weddings. He soon progressed to making mini-documentaries and short films, notching up a clutch of awards. Bell won an Emmy for his work on the documentary series “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People”, while docos such as “Dig It If You Can”, “Defend the Sacred” and “The Third” have been screened at numerous film festivals. But as someone who is completely self-taught, Bell admits that Lee’s instruction has already proved invaluable, particularly his tips about narrative structure and writing dialogue. “Spike has guided me already through a lot,” he says.  Now, having benefited from the mentorship program, Bell is determined to use his accrued wisdom to help others like him. “I definitely feel a responsibility to pass on what I learned to the younger generation that are interested in filmmaking,” he says. “I hope that in some way I can be a role model for them in the future, just as Spike is for me in the world of cinema.”

For Bell, the true value of this mentorship is how it has emboldened him, not only technically, but also to gain greater confidence in his voice as a Native American filmmaker and in the tribal stories he wants to tell. In this way, the initiative has played a genuinely transformative role.