On to Michigan: Dispatches from Sundance Institute’s Film Forward Program

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D. Owl Johnson and Brittany Ballard

Two Sundance Institute staffers arrived in Michigan for the next stop on the Film Forward tour. A Michigan native and manager of the Institute’s Indigenous Program, D. Owl Johnson discusses his hopes for the next few days while Film Forward manager Brittany Ballard previews upcoming events.

Michigan Homecoming

As an employee of Sundance Institute and a Tribal Member of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan, I am incredibly excited to participate in this years Film Forward events. The goal of Film Forward is to create cultural exchange, engagement, and dialogue with diverse communities around the globe through film and discussion.

I am 4/4 Native American and come from a multi-tribal background that includes ties to the Ojibwa, Seneca, Cayuga, and Cherokee tribal nations. This rich background has enriched my life and exposed me to many ways of seeing and knowing about the world. Early in my life, I learned that we should not only celebrate the differences that people from various cultures bring to our society, but that we should also actively seek out and honor the common bonds that we share.

I grew up in Haslett, Michigan, a small suburb outside of Lansing. As Haslett is a town that is limited in diversity in terms of race, culture, class, and ethnicity, living there made me acutely aware of my uniqueness and also presented the opportunity for me to make many friends with people who were not only different from me in appearance, but also in cultural beliefs and values. In high school, I became involved in our school’s television station and went on to study film at the University of Southern California.

Film and storytelling will always be a part of my life, and being able to share these moments and stories with each other is really special. I am so excited that filmmakers Peter Bratt and Taika Waititi will be there to share their latest films and talk about where their inspiration comes from. I hope that these screenings and discussions will motivate people to talk and will spark partnerships among writers, directors, and producers. These artists have the ability to present new voices and positive, authentic, realistic images of the lives we know about, whose characters may have been or still are stereotyped on movie and television screens.

—D. Owl Johnson

Screenings, Presentations, and More…

Film Forward and our Federal Cultural Partners are extremely excited to join forces with The Ziibiwing Center and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan and other Great Lakes Anishinabek. Screenings and Q&As with director/writer/producer of La Mission, Peter Bratt (Quechua), and director/writer/actor of Boy, Taika Waititi (Te Whanau Apanui), will take place at Celebration! Cinemas in Mt. Pleasant on May 16 and 17. Film Forward special screenings of A Small Act, Amreeka, Freedom Riders, and Winter’s Bone will also take place for the general public on May 16 and 17.

In addition, the Ziibiwing Center has organized a Youth Day on May 15, which includes special screenings and Q&As with Peter Bratt and Taika Waititi, filmmaker educational presentations by both filmmakers, and an important PSA educational workshop. According to our partners at Ziibiwing, Native American communities in Michigan are experiencing the unfortunate and untimely passing away of many young people due to teen suicide and drug overdose.

The youth and elders have responded by approaching the Tribal Council and government requesting that a clear message provide inspiration and strength to the community. The youth have asked that Peter and Taika, along with Bird Runningwater and Owl Johnson of Sundance Institute’s Native and Indigenous Program, brainstorm ideas for themes, structure, and production – tools the youth will then use to develop a PSA, which the Tribe will produce and screen on cable network and closed-circuit TV in Michigan.

With the goal of targeting core Film Forward audiences—underserved communities, student and youth groups, and artists—the Michigan program has included all 12 tribes within the state, including The little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, the Bay Mills Indian Community, and the Hannahville Indian Community. Outreach has also included libraries, museums, and schools, including Veterans Memorial Library, Michigan State University, Saginaw Valley State University, and Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Can’t wait to see you in Michigan!

—Brittany Ballard

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