Below, filmmaker Razelle Benally—known for shorts like I Am Thy Weapon, Raven, and Te Kaitiaki—recounts her experiences at Sundance Institute’s NativeLab.
Driving to the airport the morning before my departure, I stared aimlessly at passing cars, my thoughts focused on the forthcoming workshop intensive. It was no surprise how anxious and almost diffident I had become because of my selection into the NativeLab.
I was a little intimidated before I had even boarded my plane to Mescalero, New Mexico. Why? I’ve always felt like an underdog my entire life, and the day when Bird Runningwater called to inform me that I was chosen as a 2012 fellow, I celebrated as if I had won some sort of lottery. I was chosen—not by random. I was chosen because my idea, my story, my hard work, and merit.
I arrived at the airport with nerves flooding my being so much that I tripped over my luggage as I trekked to meet my “fellow fellows” and advisors. I kept reassuring myself that I deserved to be a part of this. I was given this opportunity because I earned it through years of blood, sweat, and tears. This thought kept me going through the entire time while in Mescalero at the lab.
Every day was a challenge. Each day was a mental marathon for me. The critical thinking processing in my brain at each session felt good, and the results of this hard work became evident in the reconstruction of my piece, I Am Thy Weapon. There were many aspects of my story that I was overlooking, and it was great working with new sets of eyes, as the potential in my film was being uncovered with each session.
Being in an environment with like-minded, hard-working, and serious individuals was very inspiring—and necessary. Instead of just talking about how great our films were, we were all proactively approaching our works with possibility, and pushing the contexts of our pre-production to new levels. I was blessed with an incredible group of fellows: Brooke, Ciara, and “Prof Jeff” were so knowledgable and encouraging. I couldn’t ask for a better group of fellows to be a part of.
The advisors were in each their own way honest, amazing, and helpful. Adam Lough really forced me to communicate—to not be afraid of being truly raw and real. Adam was so honest, that it was impossible for me to not reciprocate the favor. Zachary Sklar really got me to know my characters inside and out and his session was like a “plot boot camp.” Zach and I are so different, yet we shared the common uncanny interest of Allen Ginsberg.
Billy Luther shared his knowledge of relating story to the audience, which was tremendously helpful in figuring out how to make the unique plight and triumphs of my film relatable to whoever chose to watch it. Fenton Bailey inspired me to be eclectic, to think outside the box, to push the boundaries of my film. Each session left me exhausted but enlightened. I was learning new things about film, about MY film, but most importantly I was feeling it.
I was feeling the transition from underdog to worthy storyteller. My film is about a young woman overcoming oppression, self-destruction, and hardship; she finds hope through expressing herself by creating art. It’s a film about an individual’s emotional transition from dark to light.
The beginning and end of our stay in Mescalero started with our attendance at an Apache sunrise dance puberty rite ceremony. A young lady coming of age transitions from girl to womanhood. It’s a ceremony that lasts four days and nights. During this time she follows certain protocols and partakes in womanly duties. The elders oversee everything, and the women mentor the young woman.
The last night we were all in Mescalero, we attended the Ga’an dance. A huge bonfire roared in the starlit night. It was during this time it all hit me. I was emotionally struck with humbleness, strength, and light. I was honored to be exactly where I was standing, on a dusty hillside with campfire smoke in my eyes, warm black coffee in hand.
The anxiousness, diffidence, and dubiousness—the “dark” was gone, non-existent to my being. While I was gazing into the fire thinking about my time at the lab, my mind and line of sight segued to the young woman as she danced with the mountain spirit dancers, and I was able to juxtapose what she had been through and what I went through during the precious four days we spent in Mescalero.
I thought, Iironic how we started the lab when she started her ceremony, and now we’re ending when she’s ending.” The young woman went through an intense and life changing experience. She had to showcase her strength, knowledge, and faith. During our time with each other and with the advisors, I felt we showcased analogous qualities: creative strength, filmmaking knowledge, and faith in our works.
We pushed ourselves, as did she, and in the end I truly believe we came out of the process as better people and artists; as stronger creators of content. The young woman, she came out a stronger human being, a more knowledgable human being, one whom the tribal community will recognize as such as well. My time at the Sundance Institute NativeLab was about transition. I was told to “feel,” to know my characters inside and out, to communicate them and the story on screen.
Well I “felt it,” I became it, now I am confident and determined to proceed and carry on–to communicate “it” to the world. Everyday, somebody experiences a life changing transition, somebody somewhere finds hope and light. I felt the transition and now the transition has fueled me to share the story—filmically, poetically, and passionately.
Thank you to everyone involved: Sundance Institute, Zach, Fenton, Adam, Billy, Jeff, Brooke, Ciara, and of course Owl and Bird. To the Mescalero Apache tribe and the young lady who went through her ceremony, deepest respect.