Forgoing past cinematic stereotypes, today’s Native American and indigenous filmmakers opt for contemporary stories told in their own languages, with actors cast from their own communities.
Since 1981, the Sundance Institute has gone out of its way to back native writer-directors from all over the world, giving them the confidence and support to develop their own storytelling styles, even if it conflicts with approaches taken by other independents.
Sundance’s support of Native American filmmakers, via the feature film labs as well as a dedicated Native American Lab, is a core initiative, mandated by Robert Redford at the Institute’s founding.
Today it cuts across all of the Institute’s programs both in the U.S. and internationally, with work from 11 communities represented at this year’s fest, ranging from British Columbia-based Tsilhqot’in to Maori and Native Hawaiian tribes.
“Part of the rationale of this program is that native voices should be included in the larger idea of film culture and cinema,” explains Bird Runningwater, associate director the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Initiative.
Whereas Native American stories were often told through the prism of anglos in the past, Sundance has helped incubate modern Native American media.
The progress is incredibly satisfying to Sundance founder Redford.
“Our efforts have had a level of success in the form of nurturing and launching the careers of several generations of native filmmakers,” he says, “from the early generations of the late Phil Lucas, Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie, to the newer generations of Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi and Andrew Okpeaha MacClean.”
According to Runningwater, although no film has yet to match the breakout success of Eyre’s “Smoke Signals” (released in 1998 by Miramax, the film earned $6.7 million in the U.S.), Sundance-fostered native projects now travel a lot farther on a global scale. In 2010, the Institute had five films in distribution, including Harjo’s “Barking Water” and Waititi’s “Boy” (New Zealand’s all-time box office champ).
“Most of these artists are working in isolation,” Runningwater observes. “We identify them and try to give them more support.”
That support includes not only the Native Lab (held each May in Southern New Mexico) and the by-invitation-only Native Forum mini-confab but also special attention for native films during the fest itself.
This year’s lineup spotlights seven indigenous shorts and four features, including one documentary (“Grab,” from “Miss Navajo” writer-director Billy Luther, developed initially through the Native Lab).
Among the other offerings, New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori (“Once Were Warriors”) returns to Sundance this year with Iraq-set “The Devil’s Double” (in Premieres), while Australian Brendan Fletcher made world competition entry “Mad Bastards” with an Aboriginal cast.
On the U.S. front, Sundance vet MacLean’s Inupiaq-language “On the Ice” unspools in dramatic competition. MacLean won a Sundance grand jury prize for his short “Seal Hunting With Dad” in 2008, expanding that film through the native film and director’s lab to make “On the Ice.”
MacLean credits the Sundance Institute with helping him to find his voice.
“Artistically, it was a huge help in developing the project and workshopping the material,” says MacLean, explaining that “On the Ice” took shape through intense feedback in the writers’ lab. “Equally important was the fact that they are there to give advice, and their only agenda is to help you make your movie the way you want to make it.”
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