8 Indigenous-Made Films Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival—and a 20th Anniversary Screening of ‘Smoke Signals’

Film Still: “Mud”

Sundance Institute

See the five projects by Indigenous filmmakers that made their world premieres at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival here.

Following President and founder Robert Redford’s original vision, Sundance Institute has remained committed to supporting Native American artists throughout the Institute’s history. This support has established a rich legacy of work and has supported more than 300 filmmakers through labs, grants, mentorships, public programs, and the platform of the Sundance Film Festival.

The Native American and Indigenous Program has a global focus and through its work strengthens Indigenous cinema. Filmmakers supported over the years include: Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muskogee), Taika Waititi (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui), Billy Luther (Diné/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo), Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (Iñupiaq), Aurora Guerrero (Xicana), Sydney Freeland (Diné), Ciara Leina’ala Lacy (Kanaka Maoli), Lyle Mitchell Corbine, Jr. (Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians) and Shaandiin Tome (Diné).

This year, eight Indigenous-made films will be premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, January 18–28, in Park City, Utah. In addition, there will be a special 20th anniversary archive Screening of Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho) with the screenplay by Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene). This is also our opportunity to introduce the Native Program’s fellows for the coming year.

Feature Films

World Cinema Documentary Competition

Genesis 2.0 / Switzerland, Directors: Christian Frei, Maxim Arbugaev (Yakut/Buryat), Producer: Christian Frei — On the remote New Siberian Islands in the Arctic Ocean, hunters search for tusks of extinct mammoths. When they discover a surprisingly well-preserved mammoth carcass, its resurrection will be the first manifestation of the next great technological revolution: genetics. It may well turn our world upside down.


We the Animals / U.S.A., Director: Jeremiah Zagar, Screenwriters: Daniel Kitrosser, Jeremiah Zagar, Producers: Jeremy Yaches, Christina D. King (Creek and Seminole Nations), Andrew Goldman, Paul Mezey — Us three, us brothers, us kings. Manny, Joel and Jonah tear their way through childhood and push against the volatile love of their parents. As Manny and Joel grow into versions of their father and Ma dreams of escape, Jonah, the youngest, embraces an imagined world all his own. Cast: Raul Castillo, Sheila Vand, Evan Rosado, Isaiah Kristian, Josiah Santiago.


Sweet Country / Australia, Director: Warwick Thornton (Kaytej Nation), Screenwriters: Stephen McGregor, David Tranter (Alyawarra Nation) — Australian western set on the Northern Territory frontier in the 1920s, where justice itself is put on trial when an aged Aboriginal farmhand shoots a white man in self defense and goes on the run as posse gathers to hunt him down.

Short Films

Mud (Hashtł’ishnii) / U.S.A., Director and screenwriter: Shaandiin Tome (Diné) — On her last day, Ruby faces the inescapable remnants of alcoholism, family and culture.

The Violence of a Civilization without Secrets / U.S.A., Directors and screenwriters: Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Jackson Polys (Tlingit) — An urgent reflection on Indigenous sovereignty, the undead violence of museum archives and post-mortem justice through the case of the “Kennewick Man,” a prehistoric Paleoamerican man whose remains were found in Kennewick, Washington State in 1996.

Nuuca / U.S.A. / Canada, Director: Michelle Latimer (Métis/Algonquin) — The oil boom in North Dakota has brought tens of thousands of new people to the region and with that has come an influx of drugs, crime and sex trafficking.

I Like Girls / Canada, Director/Screenwriter: Diane Obomsawin (Abenaki) — Charlotte, Mathilde, Marie and Diane reveal the nitty-gritty about their first loves, sharing funny and intimate tales of one-sided infatuation, mutual attraction, erotic moments and fumbling attempts at sexual expression.

Documentary Premieres

Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock / U.S.A., Director: Cody Lucich, (Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe of Enterprise Rancheria), Producers: Heather Rae, Gingger Shankar, Ben-Alex Dupris (Colville) Standing Rock, 2016: the largest Native American occupation since Wounded Knee. Thousands of activists, environmentalists and militarized police descend on the Dakota Access Pipeline in a standoff between oil corporations and a new generation of Native warriors. This chronicle captures the sweeping struggle, spirit and havoc of a people’s uprising.

20th Anniversary Archive Screening

Smoke Signals / U.S.A., Director: Chris Eyre (Cheyenne /Arapaho); Screenwriter: Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) The chronicle of athletic and charming Victor Joseph from the Salmon Indian Reservation really begins when he learns of his father’s premature and sudden death. With no money, he accepts the offer of his quirky and garrulous childhood buddy, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, to pay for the trip, but only if he goes along. Their ensuing odyssey becomes an exploration of social and personal being, but this is not a typical account laced with angst and despair. Eyre and Alexie have fused their cultural legacy with a cinematic vision that is fresh, honest, and deeply cynical of the trite images and ideas about what it is to be Indian in America.

Native Filmmaker Lab Fellows

These two Fellows participated in the Native Filmmakers Lab with their projects in May 2017 and will end their year-long Fellowship at the Festival with ongoing support, screenings, guided film discussions, and networking events. At the Lab, these fellows worked with a cast and crew to practice shooting scenes from their short films under the expert creative mentorship of Program alumni, Creative Advisors and Program staff. This Fellowship encourages Native filmmakers to hone their storytelling and technical skills in a hands-on and supportive environment. Following the Lab, Fellows receive a year-round continuum of support.

Shaandiin Tome (Diné), Mud (Hashtł’ishnii)

On her last day, Ruby faces the inescapable remnants of alcoholism, family and culture.

Erin Maile Lau (Kanaka Maoli), Ka Mahina a me Ka Pō (The Moon & the Night)

In rural Hawai‘i, a teenage girl must confront her father after he enters her beloved pet in a dogfight.

Full Circle Fellows

The Full Circle Fellowship Program, which began in 2014 with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is a year-long program for 18-24 year-old Native filmmakers from New Mexico and Michigan. The Fellows receive an immersive experience in the world of independent film and attend screenings, participate in guided film discussions, and connect with leaders of the Indigenous film community. The Fellowship—which has its launch at the Festival—focuses on developing these Native youth filmmakers through workshops and training opportunities, and links talented young storytellers to education and career pathways across fields of independent filmmaking, using structural strategies where Native communities heal by telling their own stories.

Mandolin Eisenberg (Taos Pueblo) is a mixed-media artist. Since starting college she has focused her efforts on film. From a young age Mandolin has been inspired by creation, initially taking up drawing and then discovering a love for writing. Her passion for writing and art turned into a deep love for stories and storytelling. As a filmmaker and storyteller, Mandolin hopes to create new realities that will impact the world. Mandolin currently attends the University of New Mexico, where she studies in the Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media Program with a concentration in Directing and Writing.

Kaitlin Lenhard (Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians) is a recent graduate of Michigan State University with degrees in Media and Information, and Global Studies in the Arts and Humanities. Kaitlin’s film interests are largely centered in film language and how film language can be used as a bridge for Indigenous communities that have been denied their languages through colonization.

Nick Sowmick (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe), 18, is a student at Beal City High School in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. His interests include listening to music, watching and making films, and helping his local and tribal community.

Joseph Ernest Wemigwans (Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe), 18, has loved films all his life and, especially, paying attention to the details of how they are crafted.

Time Warner Fellows

Jhane Myers (Comanche/Blackfeet), Time Warner Story Fellowship

Jhane Myers (Comanche/Blackfeet) is a Time Warner Native Producing Fellow in the Native American and Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute. She was selected for the Fellowship with the project Words From A Bear, a documentary currently being directed by Jeffrey Palmer (Kiowa) on the life of Pulitzer prize winning Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn; The Way To Rainy Mountain). The film is slated for broadcast in 2019 on PBS’ American Masters. Myers served as an associate producer on the documentary film, LaDonna Harris Indian 101, about acclaimed Comanche activist LaDonna Harris, which aired on PBS in 2014. And, she served as Associate Producer on Defending the Fire, a documentary about Native American warriors currently playing the film festival circuit. Early in her career, Myers established herself as a great cultural and community resource for Native-content projects being produced by networks and studios including: Monsters of God (Plan B/TNT); Magnificent Seven (MGM/Columbia Pictures); Wind River (Weinstein Co.); The Lone Ranger (Walt Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer Films); And, Apocalypto (Icon Ent/Touchstone). After working with so many non-Native created projects about Native people, Myers began to seek out a producing career to support Native filmmakers and storytellers to help bring their stories to fruition. She is a recipient of the 2018 Time Warner Story Fellowship.

Jennifer Akana Sturla (Kanaka Maoli), Time Warner Producer Fellowship

Filmmaker Jennifer Akana Sturla was Born to a Hawaiian beauty queen and an aerospace engineer from New Jersey. Jennifer’s film work has frequently examined her Native Hawaiian heritage and her USC thesis film Kamea won top prizes including Best Short at the Hawai‘i International Film Festival. Subsequent projects have included shorts, a narrative feature developed by Sony Pictures, and a feature documentary on Native Hawaiian singer-songwriter Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo‘ole, currently in production. Jennifer has spent over twenty years working in film and television. In addition to filmmaking, she currently teaches production at California State University, Northridge and UCLA Extension. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her Master of Fine Arts in film and television production from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. She is the recipient of the 2018 Time Warner Native Producer Fellowship with her project The Untitled “IZ” Project.

Lauren Monroe, Jr. (Blackfeet), Time Warner Producer Fellowship

Lauren Monroe Jr. is an accomplished visual artist, filmmaker, and enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe. He is currently in development on the six-part docuseries Horse Nations with ZPZ Productions (Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, Mind of a Chef, MeatEater). He previously worked on the films Walking Out, The Ballad Of Lefty Brown, and 2016 Oscar Nominee Winter Light. He currently serves as the Cultural Coordinator for the Indigenous Masters of Education program at the University of Calgary, and is producing his directorial debut Kills Last – a post-apocalyptic thriller based on traditional tribal coup stories and told primarily in the Blackfeet language. He earned his MFA in Screenwriting through the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. He is the recipient of the 2018 Time Warner Producer Fellowship with the project Horse Nations.

Merata Mita Fellowship

At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Sundance Institute will announce the recipient of our annual Fellowship named in honor of the late Māori filmmaker Merata Mita, New Zealand’s first Indigenous female filmmaker. In addition to being a global advocate for Indigenous voices, Merata was a trusted Creative Advisor and Artistic Director at the Native Lab, and a dear friend to the Institute. The Merata Mita Fellowship is supported by the Consulate General of Canada, Indigenous Media Initiatives, Anonymous, Fenton Bailey and Billy Luther, and Sarah Luther. Each year Sundance Institute identifies a Native or Indigenous filmmaker from a global pool of nominees to award a cash grant and provide a year-long continuum of support with activities including a trip to the Sundance Film Festival, access to strategic and creative services offered by Sundance Institute artist programs, and mentorship opportunities.

The Fellowship honoree will be announced Monday, January 22nd.

Additional Fellows

These Fellows are being supported with grants and fellowships from other programs within Sundance Institute and the Native American and Indigenous Program.

Zack Khalil (Ojibway), The Art of Nonfiction Fellowship

Adam Shingwak Khalil (Ojibway), The Art of Nonfiction Fellowship

Razelle Benally (Diné/Lakota), Feature Film Development Fellowship

Philip Sanchez (San Felipe Pueblo), Rauschenberg Fellowship, Sundance Documentary Film Program

Sky Bruno (Kanaka Maoli), Ignite Fellowship


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