Off the Mountain: 2020 NativeLab Fellows on Indigenizing the Filmmaking Process

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Clockwise from top-left: Bird Runningwater, Keanu Jones, Rob Fatal, and Amanda Strong.

We recently introduced you to Off the Mountain, our new series offering a look inside the Sundance Institute’s summer labs. This year, due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we brought our labs online for the first time ever, hosting our fellows and creative advisors on Sundance Co//ab rather than in person in Santa Fe, New Mexico, or at the Sundance Mountain Resort. Each week, we’ll be bringing you a roundtable-style discussion between a few fellows and staff members from each lab. This week, we’re taking you inside the 2020 Native Filmmakers Lab.


Capitalism, queer liberation, Indigenous sovereignty—these are just a few of the themes that Rob Fatal (Mestiza/o/x, Ute, Rarámuri, Pueblo), Keanu Jones (Navajo), and Amanda Strong (Métis/Michif) are grappling with in the projects they brought through this summer’s 2020 Native Filmmakers Lab. Two weeks after the lab ended, the three fellows called in to chat with Indigenous Program director Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) and reflect on their experiences with the lab.

“This current model of the NativeLab is probably the sixth interation of the way that the Sundance Institute has chosen to invest in Indigenous filmmakers,” Runningwater says. “Over the years, we’ve been able to morph and respond to the community to meet the community where they are and provide targeted, strategic support to help advance not only the making of the making of films but also the nurturing of voices.”

Fatal, who called in from Ohlone land (Oakland, California), attended the lab with a project called Can Digital Genizaros Remember the Taste of Churros? “[The film] is set in a near future when a corporation unveils this technology that promises immortality to people who want to leave their body and use this technology to upload their consciousness to the internet,” they say about their sci-fi short, which centers on a two-spirit person named Riya.

Jones, who dialed in from Pueblo territory (Albuquerque, New Mexico), is working on a film called Ownership. “Uncut Gems by the Safdie brothers was one of the biggest inspirations, because it was a glimpse into the trading market for jewelry,” he says of the short about an oppressed silversmith who enters the ruthless business world to unveil the bitter reality of the Native American jewelry markets in the surrounding border towns.

And Strong—the lab’s first-ever Indigenous Canadian fellow—joined the conversation from Squamish territory (Gibsons, British Columbia). Her animated short film Wheetago War tells the story of Dove, a young gender shifter who regains medicinal knowledge to defeat the Wheetago. “It comes from the short story written by Richard Van Camp, who’s a Tłı̨chǫ Dene writer from the Northwest Territories in Canada,” she notes of the stop-motion project.

Below, watch the full conversation, which delved into everything from the urgency of the stories they’re telling to the importance of Indigenizing the filmmaking process itself.



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Lead photo:

Clockwise from top-left: Bird Runningwater, Keanu Jones, Rob Fatal, and Amanda Strong.