Perspectives: Filmmakers Shaandiin Tome and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers on Carrying On a Legacy of Leadership

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Filmmakers Shaandiin Tome (left) and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (right).

Last month, the Sundance Institute Indigenous Program published a new series, Perspectives, featuring Indigenous artists who have been supported by the Institute’s Indigenous Program whose work continues to broaden and champion all Indigenous experiences. We kicked off the series talking to filmmakers Miciana Alise (Tlingit) and Daniel Hyde (Navajo) on creating Black and Indigenous narratives; this month, in celebration of Women’s History Month, we’re back speaking with writer-directors Shaandiin Tome (Diné Nation) and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Kainai Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, and Sámi from Uŋárga).

While Women’s History Month in the United States began as Women’s History Week in 1981, Indigenous communities have always maintained and honored women as leaders. For centuries, the rich legacies of strength, resilience, and creativity by Indigenous women have been at the forefront of protecting and ensuring the survival of life and of this land. In recognition and celebration, the Sundance Institute Indigenous Program would like to emphasize the roles, contributions, and accomplishments of Indigenous women — the first residents and leaders of this land.

As we continue to contend with the ongoing legacies of colonialism, we do so with the understanding that white supremacy and cisheteropatriarchy are reticulated. Their effects have had devastating impacts on Indigenous communities everywhere, and have resulted in the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women as well as the imposition of a rigid and violent gender system. As we affirm Women’s History Month, we remember that history begins with Indigenous women — and our future depends on the sovereignty, protection, and leadership of Indigenous women.

The Sundance Institute Indigenous Program strongly carries on a legacy of supporting Indigenous women through our labs, grants, mentorship, and our Merata Mita Fellowship, and proudly affirms the women and gender diverse members of our communities.


©2019 Sundance Institute | Photo by Austin Madrid

Shaandiin Tome is a filmmaker and director from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Shaandiin was put on the map as a writer-director with her breakout short film, Mud (Hashtł’ishnii), which was premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. In her upcoming feature, Dibé, she was a participant at the Sundance Creative Producers Summit 2019 and Sundance Talent Forum 2020. At the beginning of 2020, she was selected as a finalist for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Her current work spans documentary, commercial, and narrative work with National Geographic, Al Jazeera, Vice, Levi’s, and Merrell. Her unique perspective allows her to capture other trailblazers in the Indigenous community. She lives in Albuquerque, aiming to bring resonating imagery in convergence with story, illustrating her perspective as a Diné woman.

MOI SANTOS: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

SHAANDIIN TOME: I would say I had two different instances where I wanted to be a filmmaker. The first being when I was a kid, maybe about the age of 12, and I used to make films with my brothers, our neighbors, and cousins. I wasn’t always the “director” in these roles we gave ourselves, but I distinctly remember it being a place I could disappear into for a bit. Our lives would become a production, finding costumes, making title cards, and thinking of where the story went next since we were shooting chronologically, rewinding the VHS tape to do another take.

It wasn’t until I went to Sundance the first time as a Full Circle Fellow that I found a completely different way to create. I knew I could make movies from my own perspective.

—Shaandiin Tome

When I started to think about what I wanted to do as a job, filmmaking seemed like the right choice. I chose to go to college to get a degree in film, and kind of just went with that initial feeling that I got as a child, knowing that I had a lot of fun doing film. But it wasn’t until I went to Sundance the first time as a Full Circle Fellow that I found a completely different way to create. I knew I could make movies from my own perspective, and while I feel like that intention was there when I was a kid, it was lost in the sea of schooling and the idea of what it was to make a film from a technical standpoint.

With all of the technicalities and business that comes with film, I have to constantly remind myself that my point of inspiration is something that is challenging and has an empathetic lens. Especially knowing the power that film holds, both good and bad, it can be the foundation of how people are seen within our society.

MS: What approach do you take with your filmmaking? How did you develop that approach or style and how do you hold on to it throughout your process?

ST: I feel like I’m still in the process of developing my style, but I think the lens I gravitate toward is one of letting moments unfold. I have always been a quiet and observant person, and I am just now coming into feeling like it is alright to have that kind of personality. Honestly, I thought one of the reasons I couldn’t be a filmmaker was because I wasn’t extroverted and eccentric.

But I really enjoy witnessing my films from the perspective of quietness; it allows me to dig into the emotions of my characters or subjects, and gives me a pathway for understanding what can be behind words. It was something I was always afraid of, and it made me feel like I didn’t have a voice if my characters weren’t saying something important. There is so much more to film, though — it is a plethora of art forms in one, and knowing that gave me so much more intention behind the balance of everything to create a piece of art that utilizes all of the senses and makes the viewer understand from a visceral perspective.

©2020 Sundance Institute | Photo by Jen Fairchild

MS: What are your favorite Indigenous-directed films, and why?

ST: There are so many! I think one of the best things about having my short Mud go to so many different festivals was to be able to see an abundance of Indigenous films. Boy by Taika Waititi is a hilarious and heartfelt film; I think it was one of the first Indigenous films that felt like I was with my family even though they were on screen. I just saw Wild Indian by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., and I was blown away. I met him when I first went to Sundance, and he was such an inspiration at the time, but that film made me see a whole different side to Indigenous films; one that showed the dimensionality of different people from the same community. Danis Goulet, Blackhorse Lowe, Sydney Freeland, Billy Luther, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Adam and Zach Khalil, Razelle Benally, Shane McSauby, Jeff Barnaby, Sky Hopinka, Erin Lau, Erica Tremblay, and so many others! Literally, all of my mentors and peers have beautiful and unique perspectives, none of their films are alike, and they all come from a place of honesty.

MS: How is your cinematic language shaped (or not shaped) by your Indigenous and Women identities? Do any other identities overlap?

ST: My Diné and Asdzáán identities influence my filmmaking in maintaining a balance. There are so many variations of a director’s cinematic language, but I enjoy pushing to the edges — whether that is with the lens, sound design, or character — and returning back to place that insights reflection. I don’t think I have ever been able to separate those identities into different realms. For me, they live in a space together, and a lot of my creativity and intention surfaces from there.

MS: What have been the greatest surprises working in the industry?

ST: I would say one of the greatest surprises that I am able to reflect on now is the number of times people and groups have excused immoral behaviors. There is a lot of deception in the film industry, or at least there was when I started out, and it made me feel like I had to bury a lot of problems I had and suck it up so I could continue working. But I feel really fortunate to be in a time where I am witnessing a lot of that changing.

While there are still a lot of problems with power dynamics and unethical practices, I find there are a lot more people, including myself, beginning to understand how to voice those concerns. It’s an unseemly task to force those who had been at a disadvantage to be the bearers of change, but I’m inspired and motivated by my peers who see the wrong in the industry and call it out for what it is. I think the future of film is going to be a completely different place than it was when I first started.

MS: In your work, how do you honor or reclaim Indigenous Sovereignty?

ST: I think the act of creating art is the reclamation of Indigenous Sovereignty. At so many points in my career, I’ve felt like my perspective wasn’t worth the time of other people, mostly because those who have been the gatekeepers of the industry tend to be the deciding factor in what is worthy. There is a way to combat the current narrative, and it isn’t through being a checked box and maintaining perceived safety.

I think the act of creating art is the reclamation of Indigenous Sovereignty.

—Shaandiin Tome

I think myself, and other Indigenous artists are making a pathway that encourages thought and challenges what has been normalized. I am of the thought that there is always change happening, and even the perspective I have now will be disputed in the future, and there is something incredibly calming about knowing that the world is shifting, and hopefully, it is for the best.

MS: What inspired you to make Mud, and did you find the story changing during the process?

ST: Mud came from an emotional place of me wanting to understand why the stereotype of alcoholism was always stripped of humanity when it came to Indigenous people. The story changed as I grew, and as I learned more about that perspective and went deeper to confront my own thoughts of how addiction has impacted my life. Even now, I feel like the film is still changing in my mind.

But I think that is the beauty of creating art — it’s like a time capsule into the mind of an individual, and the ability to reflect is what makes it so personal. I find myself watching films I used to love, and while I have nostalgia for them, I question what I saw in it and that brings me back to what I was feeling and going through at the time. I don’t think that is any different for the art I create; there might be times where I disagree with what I did or wish I could change the final output, but there might be somebody else who finds that it engages their emotions.

MS: You’ve worked and are working across a number of forms, from nonfiction and fiction to commercial, for instance. What have you learned about filmmaking and yourself through that process?

ST: All of the different forms of film are impactful in a significant way. Fiction has taught me how to really be in the moment; it takes a lot to be an all-seeing eye and basically witness the final film at the moment it is being created, and honestly it can be really overwhelming. Nonfiction is almost the same, but it feels more like you are removing yourself from the equation, and while there is the lens of curiosity that will always be present, it can be so powerful just to see something as it is.

Commercial is a whole different creature, but I think more than anything, it has forced me to think about how to get your point across with little time and how to make something impactful with the resources available. All of these exist separately, but they have all taught me something and have contributed to how I see filmmaking. I have been so fortunate to work in a space where everything is constantly evolving, including my ability as an artist. It’s interesting to look back and see how I made something with so little, or even what I did when I had a ton of resources available, and it makes me realize the resilience we have as artists to communicate our thoughts and feelings in unexpected ways.

MS: What have you learned as a writer and cinematographer that has helped you as a director?

ST: The further I get into my so-far short career as a filmmaker, the more I don’t really separate the roles. I think each of these work in conjunction with understanding how to convey emotion. I would say I lean the most on what I have learned in the world of cinematography. My mind always gravitates toward visuals. There have been times where I have watched whole movies and couldn’t tell you what the plot was, but I could tell you all of the feelings I derived from the visuals. A lot of the time I can be overly dependent on visuals, and I think that’s why the writing process for me can be so difficult, because most of the time I have a tough time conveying in words what is meant to be seen and felt. But I think it’s all a process I’m learning from, and I’m so glad I have each of them to help me grow as a filmmaker.

MS: What impact do you hope your projects will have?

ST: I hope my films have the same impact that films I love have had on me. Films I love have made me feel and understand so much about my own life; they have taken me away from my own mind at times, they have brought me a perspective I would have never experienced, and they have made me want to create. I can only dream to make a film that has an impact on someone, but for now, I enjoy the aspiration of it.

MS: What are you working on next?

ST: I’m really pushing myself to get back into the narrative side of filmmaking. I’ve been doing a lot of documentary work lately, and while it’s always a joy, I miss the ability to create a world from a blank canvas.

MS: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

ST: I would say just to challenge everything. I often feel I was too complacent with the customs of filmmaking because I thought it was something that was just a given. And that is with everything — the types of stories you want to tell, what you find interesting, how somebody might treat you; just always ask why and if there might be a different way to approach it. And also, to allow yourself time; you don’t always have to be making something to call yourself a filmmaker. There are going to be times where you just want to live, and sometimes those can be the most inspiring moments.

ELLE-MÁIJÁ TAILFEATHERS (Kainai Nation, Blackfoot Confederacy, and Sámi from Uŋárga)

©2018 Sundance Institute | Photo by Abbey Hoekzema

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is a writer, director, producer and actor. She is a member of the Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe, Blackfoot Confederacy) as well as Sámi from Norway. She was named the 2018 Sundance Film Institute’s Merata Mita Film Fellow, and is an alumni of the Berlinale Talent Lab and the Hot Docs Doc Accelerator Lab. She co-wrote, co-directed, and acted in the narrative feature The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open with Kathleen Hepburn, which premiered at the Berlinale in 2019 and won the Toronto and Vancouver Film Critics Award for Best Canadian Feature. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open was also nominated for six Canadian Screen Awards, Tailfeathers and Hepburn received the awards for Best Directing and Best Original Screenplay. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open was picked up for distribution by Ava DuVernay's company ARRAY and is available to stream on Netflix in the United States.

MOI SANTOS: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

ELLE-MÁIJÁ TAILFEATHERS: I’ve always been a storyteller, but growing up, I didn’t really even think it was possible to become a filmmaker. I didn’t know of Indigenous women filmmakers, and you can’t become what you can’t imagine. I spent the first five to six years of my life in Sápmi, where my father is from. During the long dark arctic winters, my mother found ways to encourage and nurture creativity. So from the time I was 4 years old, I was making up skits with my friends in the living room. That led to a natural progression to theater and the arts.

When I was 19 years old, I moved to Vancouver for the acting program at Vancouver Film School. After graduating, I grew tired of auditioning for the same type of stereotypical Indigenous roles in projects written and directed by non-Indigenous people. Eventually, my grandmother convinced me to go back to school. It was while doing my undergrad in Indigenous Studies that I was able to contextualize why the film industry was not a safe or welcoming space for people like me, a queer Blackfoot and Sámi woman. By chance, I was allowed to submit a media project instead of a paper for an Indigenous Studies class, and I chose to make a documentary. It was a terrible film that I shot on a camcorder and edited with iMovie, but the experience was transformative. To be able to finally have narrative agency was life-altering. I never really looked back after that.

MS: What approach do you take with your filmmaking? How did you develop that approach or style, and how do you hold on to it throughout your process?

E-MT: Most of my work is rooted in a commitment to telling stories that serve my communities. Ultimately, I just want to make films that would make my grandparents proud. I also strive to make films that I think needed when I was younger. This means working from a place of accountability, responsibility, reciprocity, hope, and love for the people and the places that I come from.

Most of my work is rooted in a commitment to telling stories that serve my communities. … This means working from a place of accountability, responsibility, reciprocity, hope, and love for the people and the places that I come from.

—Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

Generally, this also means working in ways that defy conventional filmmaking methods in the mainstream film industry. I strive to dismantle toxic hierarchical and extractive filmmaking practices that have become accepted as the golden standard. In doing so, I have to consistently interrogate my various forms of privilege and positionality as the filmmaker and imagine new ways of relating to the story. Or maybe not even “new” ways of relating to story, but rather honoring the old ways of how my people have always related to story.

MS: What are your favorite Indigenous directed films, and why?

E-MT: There are too many to name and too many words to describe why I love them! But here’s a quick list in no particular order:

    • nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up by Tasha Hubbard
    • Green Bush & Samson and Delilah by Warwick Thornton
    • Boy and Two Cars, One Night by Taika Waititi
    • Waru by Ainsley Gardiner, Casey Kaa, Renar Maihi, Awanui Simich-Pene, Briar Grace Smith, Paula Whetu-Jone, and Chelsea Winstanley
    • Vai by Becs Arahanga, Amberley Jo Aumua, Matasila Freshwater, Dianna Fuemana, Miria George, Ofa Guttenbeil, Marina McCartney, Nicole Whippy, and Sharon Whippy
    • Sámi Blood by Amanda Kernell
    • maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore by Sky Hopinka
    • Empty Metal by Adam Khalil and Bailey Sweitzer
    • Night Raiders by Danis Goulet (I’m biased)
    • Angry Inuk by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril
    • Literally ANYTHING by Alanis Obomsawin, but Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance is essential viewing
    • Foster Child by Gil Cardinal
    • How a People Live, Lichen, Savage, and Suckerfish by Lisa Jackson
    • Fast Horse and Lake by Alexandra Lazarowich
    • Njuokčamat and This Is Fiction-19 by Marja and Inger Bål Nango
    • Razelle Benally’s work on the SETTLEMENT project
    • Barking Water and This May Be the Last Time by Sterlin Harjo
    • The Cave by Helen Haig-Brown as well as SGaawaay K'uuna by Helen Haig-Brown and Gwaii Edenshaw
    • Anything by Thirza Cuthand, but especially Thirza Cuthand Is an Indian Within the Meaning of the Indian Act
    • Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner by Zacharias Kunuk
    • On the Ice (the short and the feature) by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean
    • Three Thousand by Asinnajaq
    • Sparrooabbán by Suvi West
    • êmîcêtôcêt: Many Bloodlines by Theola Ross
    • Nice Colored Girls by Tracey Moffatt
    • Shimásáni by Blackhorse Lowe
    • Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen by Hepi Mita
    • Total Control from Rachel Perkins and Blackfella Films
    • Book of the Sea by Aleksei Vakhrushev

©2018 Sundance Institute | Photo by Abbey Hoekzema

MS: What have been the greatest surprises working in the industry?

E-MT: There isn’t any one way to make a film.

MS: In your work, how do you honor or reclaim Indigenous Sovereignty?

E-MT: I’ve been thinking about this issue of storytelling ethics. What responsibilities do we carry when we share a story? To whom or what are we accountable? Ultimately, in its simplest form, stories are about relationships. The same can be said about sovereignty. Both story and sovereignty are an action, a gesture of relationship to the land, to the water, to each other, to our non-human relations, to our ancestors, and to generations to come. The relationship between story and sovereignty is one that is upheld by a rich history of cultural and legal protocols distinct to our various nations as Indigenous peoples.

Ultimately, in its simplest form, stories are about relationships. The same can be said about sovereignty. Both story and sovereignty are an action, a gesture of relationship to the land, to the water, to each other, to our non-human relations, to our ancestors, and to generations to come.

—Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers

So, what responsibilities do we carry when we share a story? First and foremost, we have a responsibility to the people and the places we call home. For me, home is the collision of the past, the present, and the future. Home is my grandmothers. Ruoktu lea min giella. Home is the language. Home is the land, the water, and all our non-human relations. Home is my mind, body, and spirit. Home is sovereignty over all of that. Home is accountability and home is acceptance.

If we uphold those responsibilities when we share story, we are free to take risks, to find new ways of sharing stories, to celebrate and create space for voices that have been largely erased by colonialism, like LGBTQ2S voices. We are free to tell stories that aren’t just about trauma and pain, but also stories that make us laugh, that challenge us to imagine new futures, stories about love, sex, and intimacy, stories that spotlight subjects made taboo because colonialism taught us they were wrong. We are free to share stories just for us.

MS: What have you learned as a writer and actor that has helped you as a director?

E-MT: I’ve learned that anybody can direct. Obviously, honing your skills through training and education is important, but really, directing is a craft that anybody can do. Transitioning from acting to directing had me filled with imposter syndrome. I often thought, “What business do I have directing films?” However, the more experience I gained, the more demystified the process became.

I think marginalized voices are so often conditioned to believe that we don’t belong or that we’re unqualified to do the work. Filmmaking, as a craft, is rather elitist. You generally have to come from some form of privilege to even become a filmmaker. Generational wealth, white supremacy, and patriarchy are very real things that set so many mediocre white men ahead of the rest of us. But what I’ve learned from so many mediocre white men making films is that I deserve to be making films just as much as they do. Again, anybody can direct films if given the opportunity, trust, and resources to do so.

MS: What are you working on next?

E-MT: I’m about to go and direct a docuseries over the spring/summer here in Canada. I’m also developing my next narrative feature film, which is an adaptation of Mununjali author Ellen van Neerven’s short story Water. It’s a queer environmental thriller, and it’s a little bit funny, a little scary, and a little bit romantic.

MS: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

E-MT: Find your creative community. Be brave and be kind.


Lead photo:

Filmmakers Shaandiin Tome (left) and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (right).