5 Native Program Alumni Invited to Join the Academy

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Taika Waititi (left) ©WireImage | Andrew Toth. Sherman Alexie (right)

Sundance Institute’s commitment to uplifting the voices of Native artists is woven throughout the organization’s history, as the Native American and Indigenous Program has built and sustained an Indigenous film circle throughout the 22 years of its formal existence within the Institute. Through sustained and continuous support of filmmakers with grants, Labs, mentorships, public programs and the platform of the Sundance Film Festival, great strides have been made in nurturing an Indigenous-created body of cinema while supporting the growth of Native American and Indigenous participation in the film industry.

In the spirit of supporting Indigenous filmmakers, we’re highlighting the Program’s alumni that were recently invited to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene)

Films: Smoke Signals (1998); The Business of Fancydancing (2002)

Sundance Connection: Feature Film Program Screenwriters Lab; Film Festival Alumni

Smoke Signals is the first Native-directed, -written, and -produced film to ever receive a major distribution deal. Alexie based the screenplay on his short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and characters and events from a number of Alexie's works make appearances in the film. Smoke Signals was directed by Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho Indian filmmaker, and the film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival. He also premiered his directorial debut The Business of Fancydancing at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.

Adam Beach (Saulteaux of Dog Creek First Nation)

Films: Smokes Signals

Sundance Connection: Film Festival Alumni

Adam Beach, an Anishinaabe member of the Saulteaux tribe of Dog Creek First Nation in Manitoba, Canada-and actor. Beach starred in Smoke Signals, which won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy and was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. He plays Christopher Weiss/Slipknot in the upcoming Warner Bros. studio film Suicide Squad (2016).

Cliff Curtis (Te Arawa, Ngāti Hauiti)

Films: Tama Tu (2005), Eagle vs Shark (2007), Boy (2010)

Sundance Connection: Indigenous Producers Fellowship; Festival Alumni

In 2004, Curtis formed Maori film production company Whenua Films. He produced Taika Waititi's WWII short film Tama Tū (2005), debut feature Eagle vs Shark (2007), and Boy, inspired by Waititi's Oscar-nominated short Two Cars, One Night. Boy became the highest grossing local film in New Zealand's history in 2010. He is currently in the lead role for AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead (2015).

Heather Rae (Cherokee)

Films: Trudell (2005); Frozen River (2008); The Dry Land (2010); Mosquita y Mari (2012); Tallulah (2016)

Sundance Connection: Former Director of Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program; Past Artist Trustee for Sundance Institute’s Board of Trustees; Film Festival Alumni

From 1996 to 2001, Rae headed the Native Program at the Sundance Institute and was a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival. Rae is a 20 year veteran of the film industry with a strong record in Native and other independent film. She has worked on more than two dozen documentary and narrative film projects but is best known for directing the feature documentary Trudell (2005); executive producing Mosquita y Mari (2012); and producing Frozen River (2008), The Dry Land (2010) and Tallulah (2016).

Taika Waititi (Te Whanau a Apanui)

Films: Two Cars, One Night (2004); Tama Tu (2005); Eagle vs Shark (2007); Boy (2010); What We Do In The Shadows (2014); Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Sundance Connection: Feature Film Program Screenwriters Lab and Directors Lab; Film Festival Alumni

Taika's first feature, Eagle vs. Shark, was released in 2007 and debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Taika's 2010 second feature length film, Boy, is an exploration of some of the characters and ideas introduced in his 2004 Oscar-nominated debut short Two Cars, One Night. In 2013, Waititi co-directed the New Zealand-based vampire comedy mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows with friend and fellow comedian Jemaine Clement; Waititi starred as Viago. The film premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Waititi's fourth feature, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival to great reception, leading him to be chosen to direct the Marvel Studios film Thor: Ragnarok.

Lead photo:

Taika Waititi (left) ©WireImage | Andrew Toth. Sherman Alexie (right)