In the Center: Indigenous Filmmakers Share Messages of Hope During Covid-19

In our final ‘In the Center’ video, hear from Native Hawaiian filmmaker ʻĀina Paikai.

Sundance Institute

You’re living in the center where life matters—that’s where you experience happiness and fullness.

—Shaandiin Tome

In June, Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache)—director of Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Programwrote about the sweeping effects of Covid-19 on Native communities around the U.S. In his piece, he pointed to the many ways in which Indigenous artists have been seeking strength in the ways of their ancestors.

“Our daily routines have changed,” Bird
reflects. “Our lives have altered in ways that may never again be what
they once were. The way we work individually and as part of a team has
changed. But throughout history, Indigenous peoples always have had to
adapt to changing times.” And for filmmakers and artists, adapting to
changing times means finding new ways to tell their stories.

That’s the basis for the program’s new series, In the Center: In partnership with IllumiNative’s #WarriorUp project,
we’ll be sharing a video from a different Indigenous Program alum each
week. Through their dispatches from around the country, you’ll learn
about the physical and emotional toll the pandemic has had and see how
people are banding together and reconnecting with their families, their
land, and their community.

Last week, we heard from Seneca-Cayuga writer/director Erica Tremblay, a 2018 Sundance Native Film Lab Fellow whose short film Little Chief premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. This week, we’re closing out the series with a video by Native Hawaiian filmmaker ʻĀina Paikai .

IN THE CENTER #6: ʻĀina Paikai (Native Hawaiian)

Before Covid-19’s arrival, Oʻahu played host to more than ten million visitors every year—approximately ten times the amount of people who actually live there, shares ʻĀina Paikai, a 2013 NativeLab Fellow. As you’ll see in ʻĀina’s video, now that tourism has ground to a standstill, many Indigenous people on the island are seeing an opportunity to look to the values of their ancestors and enact lasting change.

IN THE CENTER #5: Erica Tremblay (Seneca-Cayuga)

Originally from Oklahoma but currently residing in New York, Seneca-Cayuga filmmaker Erica Tremblay has spent much of 2020 unable to visit family and friends—including her mother, whose voicemails make up the sonic backdrop of Tremblay’s In the Center video. “Erica, I’m thinking that you’re not wanting to talk to me,” Tremblay’s mom says in one of many seemingly unanswered messages. “I need to know that you are safe and physically and emotionally well. Call me tonight. I love you.” As the video ends, so, too, does their long game of phone tag—a sweet and satisfying moment for mother, daughter, and viewer alike.

IN THE CENTER #4: Christopher Nataanii Cegielski (Diné)

“I’m originally from Flagstaff, Arizona, but I’ve been riding out this Covid experience out here in LA,” explains Diné writer/director Christopher Nataani Cegielski. “It’s tough not being able to see my family back at home,” he adds, “and it’s tough to see what the pandemic has been doing to not only the Navajo Nation, but our Native communities all across the country.” In his In the Center video, Nataanii Cegielski connects with his cousin, Shaun Martin, over the phone to talk about the remote work Wings of America has been doing to continue its mission of building healthy Native communities using youth running initiatives during the pandemic.

IN THE CENTER #3: Charine Gonzales (San Ildefonso Pueblo)

This week, filmmaker Charine Gonzales is sharing a project she’s been working on during quarantine: an animated short called Bear News. “It was important to recognize the depression that I was facing and feeling,” says Gonzales, who currently resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she’s attending the Institute of American Indian Arts. “What I chose to do was a stop motion that really encompassed all my emotions of Covid-19 and how it changed my world in an instant.” In her video, Gonzales also discusses the wider effects the pandemic has had on San Ildefonso Pueblo and how residents have rallied together and found strength in their community.

IN THE CENTER #2: Kyle Bell (Creek-Thlopthlocco Tribal Town)

In his In the Center video, Tulsa, Oklahoma–based filmmaker Kyle Bell talks about how hard it can feel sometimes to find inspiration amid the isolation of the global pandemic. Through these difficult times, he’s looked to the resilience of previous generations as he maintains his artistic practice. “Through all the hardships my ancestors went through, they still managed to pass down their stories, language, and songs to the next generation, and with film as my art, I can only hope to do the same,” he says, turning his lens on Madison, a young painter in his community.

IN THE CENTER #1: Shaandiin Tome (Diné)

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when so many of us find ourselves physically
isolated from our loved ones, a simple phone call can provide a welcome
source of human connection. In her
In the Center video, Albuquerque, New
Mexico–based filmmaker Shaandiin Tome recorded her father sharing some
important wisdom from her great-grandmother, who belonged to the Navajo Nation. “Wealth is defined in the proliferation of human
life—that’s where you’re wealthy,” Shaandin’s great-grandmother would
say—a message that’s just as important today.

Opportunity alert: The Black List has partnered with IllumiNative and Sundance Institute for the inaugural Indigenous List, which will feature film and television scripts authored by Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaskan Native film artists working in the U.S. Filmmakers and content creators are invited to submit a script for consideration by uploading it to The Black List website through September 27, 2020. Get details here.


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