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Razelle Benally's Native Lab-supported short film "I Am Thy Weapon."

Razelle Benally is of Oglala Lakota and Navajo blood and an alumna of the 2012 and 2015 Native Filmmaker Labs with her short film project "I Am Thy Weapon." Click here to apply to the 2017 Native Filmmaker Lab available to Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaskan Native film artists working in the U.S.

When I was in high school, I used to document activism on behalf of the people fighting for the protection of indigenous sacred sites. Armed with a second-hand Canon GL1, I attended countless gatherings, marches, rallies, and town hall meetings in and around the Black Hills, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and Rapid City, South Dakota. It was during this time I discovered the power of film; I also realized my potential in life and unintentionally began fostering my voice through filmmaking. As a young Lakota and Navajo woman, this was a huge deal. You see, being marginalized in a town known for its racism is very expected and at times it is almost accepted. However, whenever I had a camera in my hand, people treated me differently; they respected me, they respected the role I held whenever I had the camera rolling. I felt purpose and I felt like I was making a positive difference. Ultimately, it became my tool and medium to help project my voice, which had never really been heard before.

This is the power of filmmaking. It gives our people a voice and format for us to share our stories and allows others the insight into who we really are. This is a big deal, because for years our stories have always been told, not from us, but from others who never really cared to share the beauty of our indigeneity. We are beautiful and now there is a whole generation of up-and-coming indigenous individuals brave enough to undertake what it means to be a contemporary in narrative independent filmmaking. The voices are there, and now the support is becoming ever more important.

Razelle Benally (fourth from left) with Native Program alumni and staff. © 2016 Sundance Institute | Babak Dowlatshahi

Sundance Institute changed my life in 2012 when I was selected for the Native Lab Fellowship for my short film project I Am Thy Weapon. In 2015, the Institute revamped the program and offered the new Native Lab Short Film Production Fellowship accompanied by a small grant. This grant would ultimately help get my short narrative film made. I was fortunate enough to go through the new lab as well, and thus finally get this film out there. I Am Thy Weapon was and forever will be the piece that catalyzed my voice and direction in narrative filmmaking. Through the process I realized the impact of our voices, visions, and roles. I realized how important it is to have our people working key positions as well as working as cast and crew. This for me, is what Native cinema really is: it’s the spirit within the film that drives it, that stays with it for the audience to connect with. Those who have lived with it can only nurture this spirit – it is our ancestors and common people. This spirit has always been in our blood.

The Native Filmmaker Lab allows emerging filmmakers to explore direction and allows you to express your vision with sensitivity while encouraging authenticity in all form. It is a fellowship where you are advised by working industry filmmakers. It is a fellowship where you are given the opportunity to network with producers, professionals, and a whole creative community of individuals dedicated to film. As indigenous people, we are unique, as are our stories, and the way we choose to share those stories. Our presence adds to the narrative of amazing things happening in this world and it’s important that we continue exploring how to share our stories in a way that is truly reflective of who we are. We are needed, we always have been and we always will be. For our spirits will always need to be nurtured, our stories will always need to be told, and our people will always have a voice needing to be projected.


Lead photo:

Razelle Benally's Native Lab-supported short film "I Am Thy Weapon."