How Native filmmakers are restoring cinematic narratives

Indigenous film festivals showcase Native stories, but more support is needed to reach mainstream audiences.


You nervously down your beer at a Toronto bar, then race across the street to the theater where your film is having its international premiere. As you take your seat, it hits you: Your face, your very soul will be projected — and judged — by Indigenous cineastes and filmmakers from around the world. 

ImagineNATIVE — the world’s largest Indigenous film festival — is underway, and it’s too late to back out now. You’re playing with the big kids: Indigenous filmmakers from across the globe sharing, competing, networking and storytelling.

Director Sydney Freeland turned to Kickstarter to complete the funding for her 2014 feature based on reservation life in her own New Mexico hometown.
Screen capture from Drunktown's Finest trailer

Indigenous film has taken a long time to reach mainstream audiences and still has a long way to go. Smoke Signals, the 1998 indie hit written and directed by an all-Native crew, is widely regarded as the first film to cross over. But since then, few mainstream movies by, for and about Indigenous people have appeared. Hollywood has largely ignored Indigenous narratives.

Film festivals are often the only way to catch Indigenous movies. Occasionally, they feature a big-budget, feature-length “Indigenous” film — the kind with Indigenous actors or themes for set dressing but a white protagonist. The Native supporting actor generally exists for the white star to bounce ideas off, learn from and perhaps try to save (with mixed results).

Festivals with dedicated Indigenous programming, like Durango’s and Santa Fe’s, are a better bet for First Nations cinephiles. But Indigenous film festivals are the best: Toronto, New Zealand, Finland and Oklahoma for instance. They provide a place for filmmakers to showcase work and bring Native film scholars together.

Here, you’ll hear critiques of the quintessential American-settler fantasy, such as Last of the Mohicans and its nine American adaptations. “Where the white man can become a better Indian than the Indian,” says film scholar Theo Van Alst, director of the Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University.

The gold standard for racist cinematic portrayals of Indigenous people remains John Ford’s 1939 Western Stagecoach. Van Alst believes its glowing support of Manifest Destiny and westward expansion was perhaps its most damaging effect. But Stagecoach dehumanized Native people and helped establish cowboy-and-Indian stereotypes, as in what Van Alst calls the “Magic Bullet Theory.”

“White bullets invariably find their mark no matter what angle they are fired from, and they’re almost 100 percent fatal,” says Van Alst. “On the other hand, it takes (more Indian) shots to hit a white guy.”

The settler fantasy takes us to the 1990 film Dances with Wolves, and ultimately to space, with 2009’s Avatar, where the main character is dropped into the body of a Na’vi to become a “space Indian.” “You’re an insta-Native: No need to learn the language, culture or, uh, ‘horsemanship’ ” says Van Alst.

The lack of Indigenous films is largely due to a lack of funding. In June 2017, Canada formed the Indigenous Screen Office to support Indigenous filmmakers. In the first year, development and production work began on 35 projects directed by Indigenous people. In Norway, the International Sámi Film Institute supports the Indigenous people of northern Europe. No such office exists in the United States.

“I look at the funding levels (of Sámi films) and I also look at the Canadian funding base,” says Shirley Sneve, executive director of Vision Maker Media, based in Lincoln, Nebraska. “New Zealand and Australia support their Indigenous filmmakers a lot more than we’re able to do.”

In lieu of federal support, Sneve says casino tribes could step in. But for now, sporadic grants and online donations fill the void.

Take Navajo filmmaker Sydney Freeland’s 2014 feature, Drunktown’s Finest. Despite backing by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute, Freeland had to seek finishing funds through Kickstarter. 

Then there’s Taika Waititi. A Maori filmmaker from New Zealand, Waititi was an indie darling, with films like Two Cars, One Night and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Then, in 2017, he directed Thor: Ragnarok, netting nearly $853 million. Rumors abound that Waititi has now been tapped to direct a film in the Star Wars franchise.

Hollywood took a chance on Waititi and tapped into a unique voice with a narrative that was “undiscovered” by non-Native standards. That narrative is garnering interest: Nearly 200 people attended two screenings of Indigenous short films put on by Sundance in Albuquerque earlier this year. “I think from the non-Indigenous perspective they were really excited to see these different (films),” says Maya Solis-Austin, senior manager of the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous program.

So why do Indigenous filmmakers persist? When the lights come up on your film and you take in that sea of smiling faces, you remember there is no better medium to work in, and no better audience to screen for. It’s just you and a few other people, sitting in a room, telling stories.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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