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Filmmaker Ty Sanga on an Indigenous Experience

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Ty Sanga

Ty Sanga is a Native Hawaiian filmmaker and 2011 Native Lab Fellow whose film Stones was selected for the Shorts Program at the 2011 Festival. He recently participated in the five-day Lab in Mescalero, New Mexico with his project Kalama Brothers, chronicling a boy’s struggle to reconnect with his estranged family in order to avoid the foster care system.

I had the extreme honor of being a Fellow at the 2011 Sundance Native Lab that was held on the homeland of the Mescalero Apache tribe in New Mexico. The environment was new to me and completely different from the tropical humidity that I’m used to in Hawaiʻi. The days were hot and dry and the nights were chilly. I was worried I brought the wrong clothes.

Ty Sanga meets with Advisor Sterlin Harjo at the 2011 Native Lab. Photo by Lindsey Shakespeare.

We started off the trip with a wonderful dinner made by Bird Runningwater’s aunt during which I met the other Lab fellows. Though the landscape was unfamiliar, the experience felt a lot like home. I was among new acquaintances who already felt like old friends, and music blasted through worn speakers as scruffy dogs ran around seeking attention. The difference was that I was enjoying a meal among some of my idols from the film community. I am truly blessed that they were my Advisors. On top of that the food did not disappoint and I discovered the magic of fry bread.

The next morning we had an intense writing workshop with Joan Tewkesbury. We were each challenged to dig deep into our personal lives and manifest it through the characters in our scripts. It placed my characters into situations that I wouldn’t normally imagine or come up with on my own. It was different but enticing. The safe and nurturing environment allowed me to dive head first into the process instead of resisting the unfamiliar. In all honesty, we didn’t have a choice. Joan said to stop worrying about making mistakes and “Just write.” We did. It was liberating.

And that was the mindset for the rest of the Lab. I met individually with each Advisor as they dissected the characters and themes in my script. They opened roads into my story that I would have never thought to explore. Sterlin Harjo reminded all of the Fellows that even with these changes, at the end of the day these are still our stories. Let all those ideas sit in your brain and whichever notes remain after the Lab are the ones that hold the most weight.

Participants at the 2011 Native Lab in Mescalero, New Mexico. Photo by Joseph Beyer.

It was also nice to see the similarities between each of our indigenous cultures. As my Advisors and other Lab Fellows commented on my story, they would bring up similar themes or other traditional stories in their cultures. They understood what I was trying to convey. Even though we’re separated geographically, our cultures share a common soul.

For our final night of the Lab, we had the privilege of visiting a culture dance of the Mescalero Apache tribe. Bird led the way as we drove an hour or so into the desert. It was pitch black and there was no way to tell where we were going. We followed the blinding cloud of dirt that was kicked up from the car in front of us.

Once we got to the location it was breathtaking. I have never seen so many stars in the night sky. As the dancers moved around the large fire, I was taken aback at such a powerful image. Off to the side, a medicine man led a coming of age ceremony for two girls of the Mescalero tribe. It was their first day of the ceremony, which started at dawn and continued on past midnight. It was a reminder that our cultures are alive and thriving.

I’ve been truly blessed to participate in the Native Lab. I’ve found a great family that has been supportive, yet still able to offer helpful criticism. It was the first stop on a long road towards a feature film. I can’t wait to get back to writing new drafts. That’s the beautiful thing about the writing process, you can just keep writing and refining your story draft after draft. It’s the cheapest part of a film production, but the most valuable to the project.

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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