A Celebration of Indigenous Cinema on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Clockwise from top left: Reservation Dogs, Cousins, Coming Home in the Dark, Wild Indian, malni: towards the ocean, towards the shore, and Night Raiders.

By Adam Piron

In recognizing Indigeneity’s relation to cinema, most focus on the histories of its representations within the moving image. Those are fundamental threads, but it’s essential that we also look deeper than that. The question is always centered on how these images were made, but very rarely is there consideration given to where they were made, or more specifically the legacies that paved the way for them to be created there in the first place. 

In the case of Sundance, our offices sit on the unceded territories of the Tongva, Chumash, and Tataviam Nations (Los Angeles); the Ute Tribal Nation (Park City); and the Lenni Lenape Nation (New York City). It’s important to acknowledge whose home we’re in and that these communities are still very much present. Cinema both here and elsewhere has benefited greatly from legacies of colonialism, and in many cases is the direct result of it. All things considered, it’s a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of Indigenous artists that they’ve been creating films since 1909 that have not only worked to dismantle that history but also to realize their visions on their own terms.

Not to forgo the wisdom that comes with hindsight, but I think it’s safe to say that 2021 will be seen as a watershed moment in the continued history of Indigenous Cinema. We’re in a moment that has been built on generations of Indigenous artists and the fruit of their efforts has led us here. This year has given way to the releases of multiple feature films by Indigenous filmmakers internationally that span genre, formal approaches, and screening formats. Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program has been fortunate enough to support and amplify many of these voices either through direct support from fellowships and grants, or also through the platform of the Sundance Film Festival. 

In the spirit of celebrating Indigenous peoples and their accomplishments on Indigenous Peoples’ Day — and every day — we want to highlight some of those voices who have had their works released this year, and we’re also showing you where you can stream or view these projects.

James Ashcroft (Ngā Puhi/Ngāti Kahu/English): Coming Home in the Dark

Winding down a desolate road through an endless valley, Alan and Jill stop their car to take their teenage boys on a hike through the New Zealand wilderness. As they rest for a picnic at a clearing overlooking the water, two ominous-looking drifters appear out of nowhere, silently surrounding the peaceful clan and radiating a threat of imminent danger. With a swift act of violence, these men take the family by force, a seemingly random decision that sets them all on a maddening collision course with the ghosts of their pasts — from which there is no escape. With its menacing performances and calibrated stakes, director James Ashcroft’s ruthless crime thriller careens into an unhinged road trip that leaves the viewer breathless through every piercing curve. Ashcroft pulls absolutely no punches in his feature debut, an astonishingly lean and relentlessly paced descent into the heart of brutality, building tension from a single speck to an avalanche with uncommon precision. Contains extreme violence and gore. [WATCH NOW]

Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians): maɬni—towards the ocean, towards the shore

A poetic experimental documentary circling the origin of the death myth of the Chinookan people in the Pacific Northwest, maɬni—towards the ocean, towards the shore follows two individuals as they wander through nature, the spirit world, and something much deeper. At its center are Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier, who take separate paths contemplating the afterlife, rebirth, and death. Probing questions about humanity’s place on Earth and other worlds, Sky Hopinka’s debut feature takes viewers on a journey through language and belief that will leave them thinking—and dreaming—about it long after. [WATCH NOW]

Ainsley Gardiner (Ngāti Awa, Te Whānau Apanui, Ngati Pikiao) and Briar Grace-Smith (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hau): Cousins

Cousins follows three Māori cousins — Mata, Missy, and Makareta — who lead separate lives, yet are bound together forever. Orphaned Mata believes she has no whānau (family) and lives out her lonely childhood in fear and bewilderment. Back home on the land in New Zealand, driven and educated Makareta flees an arranged marriage to study law and begin the search for her missing cousin. She leaves behind cheeky yet dutiful Missy who takes on her role of kaitiaki (guardian) of the land. As the years pass and land surveyors begin to encroach, their promise to bring their stolen cousin home seems more unlikely than ever, until a chance encounter changes everything. Cousins is based on the novel of the same name, written by one of New Zealand’s most prominent and celebrated authors, Patricia Grace. [WATCH NOW]

Danis Goulet (Cree-Métis): Night Raiders

After a destructive war across North America, a military occupation seizes control of society. One of their core tactics: taking children from their families and putting them into State Academies, or forced-education camps. Niska is a Cree mother desperate to protect her daughter Waseese. But events force mother and daughter to separate, leading Niska to join a group of Cree vigilantes to get her daughter back. If this story echoes the real forced assimilation of Indigenous children that colonizing powers undertook in Canada, the U.S., Australia, and beyond, that’s no coincidence. With Night Raiders, Goulet transforms the ugly reality of residential schools into remarkable, cinematic world building. The production design, cinematography, and visual effects all contribute to a full immersion in a powerful, fictional world. Night Raiders is not just a singular Canadian film, but a new view of Canada for the whole world. [Released theatrically in Canada, Oct. 8;, U.S. release coming soon]

Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee Creek) and Taika Waititi (Te-Whānau-a-Apanui): Reservation Dogs

From co-creators and executive producers Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, Reservation Dogs is a half-hour FX comedy that follows the exploits of four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma who steal, rob and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious and faraway land of California. One year ago, Daniel, the fifth member of the Reservation Dogs, died. Struggling to make sense of the loss, the remaining four blame their boring, small town and its ability to crush the spirit. They decide to honor Daniel by adopting his dream of getting to California as their own. [WATCH NOW]

Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa): Wild Indian

Makwa, a young Anishinaabe boy, has a rough life. He often appears at school with bruises he says he got falling down, but no one believes him. He and his only friend, Ted-O, like to escape by playing in the woods, until the day Makwa shockingly murders a schoolmate. After covering up the crime, the two boys go on to live very different lives. Now, as adult men, they must face the truth of what they have done and what they have become. In his feature debut, writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. tells a story that spans centuries and the continent in a film destined to be a touchstone in Indigenous cinema. Leading an impressive cast, Michael Greyeyes delivers a gripping, enigmatic performance as a modern Native American man who has done terrible, unforgivable things. With a strong and compelling visual style that evokes both fascination and dread, Wild Indian considers the cost of survival in a world as cruel as our own. [WATCH NOW]

UP NEXT: Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith on “Cousins”

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