[Back row: Dana Ledoux Miller, Andrew Ahn, Alex Lazarowich, Eva Grant; middle row: Quinne Larsen, Cian Elyse White, Anpa’o Locke; front row: Jana Schmieding, Jennifer Reeder, Taylor Hensel]
By Stephanie Ornelas
“As BIPOC and Indigenous people, you are always bringing something new to the table because our stories are so left on the side and aren’t told. Each person who’s a part of this lab is bringing a unique vision that has never been shared with the world before.”
– Alex Lazarowich, 2023 Sundance Institute Native Lab creative advisor
Four creative advisors and five fellows spent the last week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, partaking in the dynamic collaborative experience that is the Sundance Institute 2023 Native Lab. Following the lab’s online component, which took place May 1–5, filmmakers journeyed to Santa Fe for six days to meet and learn from each other in person. Designed to help filmmakers from Native and Indigenous backgrounds improve original projects, the lab gives fellows the opportunity to create under the guidance of experienced creative advisors. This year, those advisors are Alex Lazarowich, Andrew Ahn, Jennifer Reeder, and Dana Ledoux Miller.
Just before the in-person portion of the lab kicked off on May 8, we met virtually with Lazarowich, Ahn, Reeder, and Ledoux to talk about participating in the program as mentors and advisors. Looking back at their own experiences early on in their careers, they each explain why programs like the Native Lab are so vital to emerging Indigenous filmmakers and what this kind of mentorship would have meant to them when they were starting out. And while each advisor offers unique guidance to fellows in the program, they all share the same understanding that the lab is a safe space to be creative, and filmmakers shouldn’t be afraid to go beyond what the film industry has typically expected from Indigenous storytellers.
Here’s what the creative advisors have to say about the experience and the advice they offered 2023 fellows and emerging artists:
Alex Lazarowich | Fast Horse, 2019 Sundance Film Festival (Special Jury Award for Directing); Sweet Home Reservation, 2021 Native Filmmakers Lab)
“I don’t profess to know everything. I can only bring the experiences that I’ve had. I’m trying to give very tangible advice that people can walk away with and feel confident moving forward in their career.”
Lazarowich is no stranger to the programs at Sundance Institute — as a filmmaker, an advisor, and a fellow herself. Her short Fast Horse screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and in 2021, Lazarowich received support through the Institute’s Native Lab for her feature-length romantic comedy Sweet Home Reservation.
“I learned so much from the other fellows, and I think that’s what’s really nice about any of the Indigenous programs at Sundance,” explains Lazarowich. “One of the most powerful things about Sundance is that it’s truly and authentically about building a network and building your career.”
“It continues to shape who you are as a filmmaker, and it allows you to connect with other people who are also pursuing the same things as you. That’s where great collaboration happens,” continues Lazarowich.
It’s also about having the opportunity to tell your story as authentically as possible, Lazarowich stresses. And the only way to do that is to let experienced Indigenous artists take the reins as educators, advisors, and decision-makers.
“It allows other Indigenous folks to help give feedback for those projects without coming at it in a colonized white voice,” she says of the lab. “What’s great about [Native Lab] and why it’s important is that it allows other Indigenous people to provide solidarity and also to provide an actual contextual basis for the industry that allows other [artists] to flourish.”
Through her own projects and as a creative advisor, Lazarowich is striving to show a new perspective on what comprises Indigenous cinema.
“I think there is sort of a false idea that Indigenous cinema has to be about traditions, or trauma, or sadness,” she says. “But my goal is to always offer an alternate reality to people who are watching the films that I make. And joy is a huge part of it. I also think laughter is a huge part of it. And I think complexity is a huge part of it. Sometimes the Indigenous community gets painted as a pan-Indigenous community, and that’s not true.”
“What we’re doing is reaching across to people who may have not known what Indigenous people look like, sound like, the things they’ve experienced — they are now seeing it and understanding our way of life.”
Advice for fellows: “Lean on the kindness of the people who are part of the group, and lean into the kindness [of] the advisors and the people who surround the Sundance organization. We all have your best interest at heart. Sometimes you need an outside perspective.”
Andrew Ahn | Dol (First Birthday), 2012 Sundance Film Festival; Spa Night, 2016 Sundance Film Festival; Native Speaker, 2017 FilmTwo Fellowship Grant; This Close, 2018 Sundance Film Festival
“I was really compelled to be an advisor for Sundance [Native Lab] because it’s a program that I interacted with before, and I see how [it] supports young Native filmmakers in a way I think is really special and allows people to tell really meaningful stories,” Ahn says. “I’m really looking forward to working with the Sundance team. I’ve known Adam Piron, [Director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program] for years, and I think that the work he does is super meaningful.”
For Ahn, it’s also about giving back to a community that’s supported him since the beginning of his film career. In addition to having his projects premiere at past Sundance Fests, Ahn received a Film Fund Grant in 2014 and 2015 for Spa Night, and he was a fellow for the 2013 June Screenwriters Lab and 2013 Creative Producing Summit.
“I really think it’s important, as someone who’s made my way through the first phase of my career, that I give back. I think that there’s a lot of cutthroat competitive people, and I don’t think that leads to better filmmaking and a more sustainable work environment, so I want to be a part of that change in this industry and cultivate generosity by working with younger filmmakers,” says Ahn.
As a former Institute fellow, Ahn can offer valuable insight about the importance of this kind of mentorship. For young filmmakers, finding educators and advisors to help them hone their vision can have a great impact on their creative process, Ahn explains.
“Finding a mentor, a creative advisor, […] is a great way to not feel so alone. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. I think it’s a really smart idea to just stay motivated and inspired.”
“I had really wonderful mentors in this industry,” continues Ahn. “Some of them I met through Sundance — wonderful filmmakers who have uncompromising visions and are a constant source of motivation for me to keep making films.”
Advice for fellows: “The best advice I can give to a young filmmaker is a piece of advice that I got from someone I met through Sundance — filmmaker Ira Sachs: ‘Whatever you get wrong on this one, you’ll fix on the next one.’ We put so much pressure on one project. We feel like it has to be perfect, and that doesn’t create a mindset that allows us to take chances, to experiment, to play. So I really want to unburden young filmmakers and just say, think of the career, think of the long term. Have fun on this one. Try some interesting things. If you get something wrong, it’s okay. Figure it out on the next one.”
Jennifer Reeder | A Million Miles Away, 2015 Sundance Film Festival
This is not Reeder’s first go-around as a Native Lab creative advisor. After her short film A Million Miles Away premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, she stepped into the advisor role in 2019 and again in 2021.
“It’s always a no-brainer,” says Reeder. “I love talking to young filmmakers in all capacities, but when it’s a more formal kind of advising relationship that’s really concentrated and focused like this lab is, that feels much more productive for me and for the filmmaker.”
“I didn’t have any kind of mentoring like this,” she explains. “It was at a time where very few people were making movies who looked like me. So now that I have an opportunity to give back, I’m totally committed to mentoring young filmmakers, but in particular, Indigenous filmmakers.”
Plus, the experience fellows get by simply being around other filmmakers is extremely beneficial, adds Reeder.
“That’s probably the most valuable takeaway for those filmmakers — their exposure to other filmmakers or even to someone like Adam [Piron]. The whole Native Lab team does such a good job at not just curating the projects themselves, but figuring out, ‘What is the whole cohort year by year? And what does this whole cohort look like together? How will all of these conversations be beneficial to each of these filmmakers?’”
Advice for fellows: “Be open to radical suggestions. Know that the advisors, the other filmmakers, and the lab team all come with a lot of experience. So it’s really important to be open to revisions and be open to abandoning parts […] that really need to be rewritten. This lab is truly a sacred space, a very closed environment. [It’s] a very safe environment in the sense that there’s respect given to all the projects and the filmmakers, knowing that they put their hearts and souls into this project.
Dana Ledoux Miller | Thai Cave Rescue, Designated Survivor, The Newsroom
Miller has been writing mostly for TV for the past decade, but helping other writers who are at different stages in their careers is something she’s developed a passion for over the last couple of years.
“To be in a room with people who love storytelling and the idea of getting to do that in a really focused amount of time with an amazing group of Indigenous storytellers is really a dream come true and not something that I even really imagined possible for myself when I started this career. I feel really honored to be in these spaces. This type of mentorship would have meant everything to me. There was a lot I didn’t know when I first started,” says Miller.
She’s been especially passionate about helping Pacific Islanders sell and produce their projects. So when Ianeta Le’i, senior manager for Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, reached out asking her to be a creative advisor, Miller couldn’t turn down the offer.
“Sundance is so special, and I know that the talent they foster goes on to do really amazing things on really big stages. So the idea of maybe being able to help just a little bit in that and to hear new voices and to see what people are excited about — every aspect about it was just something I couldn’t say no to.”
Miller particularly looks forward to encouraging young Native filmmakers to tell stories that aren’t solely focused on their identity as Indigenous people.
“We can tell much broader stories that aren’t defined solely by our cultural experiences,” explains Miller. “And yet, […] because of who we are and where we come from, we influence these stories in really specific ways that bring a new point of view and a new voice to horror or drama, to all of these different things. We’ve reached a critical mass in that there’s more and more of us all the time, and we no longer have to be defined by one piece of our identity. I think it makes for more interesting storytelling.”
And Indigenous joy is at the center of it all.
“There’s a tendency, because many Indigenous people have gone through a lot of different types of oppression, that those are the most dramatic versions of us and those are the stories that we should tell. I think when people on the outside of that experience are buying our projects or funding them, that’s how they see us, and they kind of pigeonhole us into our pain. But we’re so much more than that. So to see stories where we can be joyful and celebrate our successes — we want to tell stories about our fullness.”
Advice for fellows: “Don’t be afraid to speak up for what you want. This is a business where everyone kind of assumes you know what you’re doing. If this is a place where you want to have the opportunity to tell stories, you can’t be afraid to say what you want. If I hadn’t spoken up for myself, my whole life would have been different. You deserve to be here as much as anyone else. So, take up space.”