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Native American Fest Gives Voice to Tribal Women

California’s American Indian and Indigenous Film Festival will shine a spotlight on Native American women who produce, direct and act in films and television. It will feature a powerful lineup of feature-length efforts, shorts and documentaries, many of which were made by and star Native American and indigenous women.

The sixth edition of CAIIFF runs Nov. 1-3 and coincides with the start of Native American Heritage Month.

“We are the largest Native American and indigenous persons film festival in the United States,” says executive director Joely Proudfit, who also serves as the director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center. “What started out as a seminar in my classroom at California State University, San Marcos, where I’ve taught for 24 years, has become something very special to a lot of people, and it’s a really big event for all of us.

CAIIFF aims to highlight American Indian storytelling traditions, which help to connect the current community to the future. CAIIFF is coordinated by the California Indian Culture & Sovereignty Center (CICSC) in partnership with many tribal and community and campus sponsors.

The importance of this year’s roster of films highlights the desire to get stories told from the point-of-view of the Native American female, a group that has become largely pushed to the side in terms of filmed entertainment.

“I’m a Native American woman myself, so I see the need to get these films out there for people to experience. Most of these films don’t have national distribution, so we’re looking to elevate women’s voices in the medium,” says Proudfit. “Most people’s interpretation of the Native American experience has been the wrong interpretation. The films we screen at the event look to correct that.”

The festival also offers stop motion-animation labs, and is putting an emphasis on engaging Native American youth within the world of cinema, and will screen a series of short films made by Native American student filmmakers.

This year’s film selections feature the U.S. premiere of Don McKellar’s “Through Black Spruce,” which tells the story of a young Cree woman whose disappearance triggers events in two worlds: in Moosonee, the remote Northern Ontario community she fled to years ago, and Toronto, where she modelled before vanishing.

“I’m greatly anticipating the release of the film,” says lead actress Tanaya Beatty. She “read the script as a teenager and was blown away by the themes, and I completely fell in love with the character of Annie. It’s a passion for me to support indigenous voices on-screen, so working on this project was a tremendous personal experience.”

The film recently had its world debut last month at the Toronto Film Festival, and on Nov. 3 American audiences will be able to see the pic for the first time.

At heart, “Through Black Spruce” puts a First Nations spin on the popular “girl-gone-missing” milieu and ties it into a larger social discussion.

“It’s very rare to read material that examines a more remote culture,” says co-producer/co-star Tina Keeper. The film “really resonates with indigenous women, and I’m so grateful that the festival is highlighting indigenous women in film. Missing women are a sensitive topic in Canada, and the film definitely has something important to say.”

And showcasing a film such as this ties into the overall message that the festival is trying to convey. “We’re looking to bring important and exciting films to the community that have something to say about the world we all inhabit, and this year’s selection speaks to the general quality of the work that was submitted,” says Proudfit.

The festival will also be taking a critical look at something that’s become an incendiary topic within Native American culture and indigenous tribes – the murders and disappearances of so many indigenous women.

“This is a tragic issue that we all face, and on opening night, we’ll be screening four incredible short films, all told through different points-of-view, all revolving around this issue,” says Proudfit. “It’s incredibly important that we get the message out that this is a part of our culture that’s become marginalized, and more people need to be aware of this painful and horrible reality.”

Proudfit is excited for “Kayaking to Klemtu,” which she says, “is a fantastic movie from filmmaker Zoe Hopkins,” while also reserving high praise for the acclaimed documentary “Warrior Women,” which she calls a “truly potent and remarkable character study.”

The festival, which is being held at the Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula, Calif., also includes various youth activities and Q&A sessions.

“It’s wonderful that this festival is held on tribal land. We eventually moved the event from a smaller campus setting over to the casino, and since we’re only 90 minutes away from Hollywood, it’s the perfect distance for people to see some great films and support some very talented storytellers,” says Proudfit.

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