The Native Forum Goes to Native Lands

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Bird Runningwater, Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache

This May the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program is venturing across Indian Country to bring the Native Forum to Native Lands. This journey coincides with Lab Fellow and Festival Alum Taika Waititi being highlighted as the Sundance Alumni Advisory Board Member of the month. So prepare to be blogged, tweeted, eblasted, and otherwise made aware of 20+ years of Native Cinema made possible by Sundance Institute.

Sherman Alexie, Irene Bedard, and Chris Eyre at ’98 Sundance Film Festival with Smoke Signals. Photo by Trisha Empey.

In 1994, the Sundance Film Festival created the Native Forum to highlight and premiere films made by Native American filmmakers. That first year, the Festival screened 14 films made by Native American and Canadian Aboriginal directors. In the years that followed, the Native Forum became a space for Native and Indigenous filmmakers to gather and share stories of their experiences and struggles, but most importantly to build a community. At the helm of this effort was Cherokee Filmmaker Heather Rae, who headed the Native Program and programmed the Native Forum.

From 1994 to 2004, close to 165 Native films premiered as Official Selections of the Sundance Film Festival. Careers were launched and many of those filmmakers continue to make films and present their work to audiences across the country and around the world. In 2001, Heather Rae moved on to become a producer and I carried on the work of building the Native Program on the very sturdy foundation that Heather Rae established. In 2007, Owl Johnson (Saginaw Chippewa/E. Cherokee/Seneca-Cayuga) joined the program to help carry out the work.

As the Native Forum expanded to include Indigenous filmmakers from Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific, the Indigenous film circuit also expanded with other Festivals presenting works by Indigenous filmmakers. ImagineNative in Canada and MessageSticks in Australia became additional hubs on the global circuit for Indigenous Cinema. After helping to put Native Cinema on the cultural map, the Sundance Film Festival retired the Native Forum category in 2005 as a steady stream of Native films were being selected for the Festival’s overall programming categories.

Today the Native Forum is still a vibrant space where Indigenous filmmakers and industry come together to share their expertise with one another at the Festival. The community that converges is able to connect at events such as the Native Forum Brunch or meet agents, film company executives, and producers at the Sundance Industry Meetings. Native Lab Fellows receive additional support and guidance on the projects they have in development, and before the Festival ends filmmakers participate in workshops and panels such as the Indigenous ShortsLab, hosted for the first time at the 2011 Festival.

Now nearly 20 years later, the Native Forum has evolved and is returning to Native Lands across the U.S. this month. Throughout May the Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program is taking the Native Forum to three specific regions along with films and filmmakers to connect with aspiring writers, directors, and actors in local communities.

The Native Forum will visit the following locations:

  • May 12 – The ancestral lands of the Piscataway with the Film Forward Program’s visit to Washington, D.C., where Taika Waititi’s Boy will screen at the National Museum of the American Indian and Peter Bratt’s La Mission will screen at the American Art Museum/Portrait Gallery. Both screenings at 6:15 p.m. Get tickets here.
  • May 15-17 – Lands of the Three Fires Confederacy made up of the Odawa, Pottawatomie, and Ojibwe Nations in Michigan. Filmmakers Taika Waititi and Peter Bratt will be present to screen their films in collaboration with the Ziibiwing Cultural Center and the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe of Michigan.
  • May 21 – Taos, New Mexico, for a community screening of Taika Waititi’s Boy and Meet & Greets hosted for NBCUniversal and SAG Indie executives interested in discovering talented writers, producers, directors, and actors.
  • May 23-27 -The homelands of the Mescalero Apache Tribe will serve as host to the Sundance Institute’s Native Lab, where four filmmakers have been selected through a national competition to workshop their projects under the guidance of world class filmmakers.
  • May 25 – Sundance Alum Taika Waititi’s Boy will be shown at a community screening for the Mescalero Apache Tribe at the Inn of the Mountain Gods.

The growth and expansion of the Indigenous film world is exciting. These days we can find Heather Rae producing Oscar-nominated films and serving as an Artist Trustee to Sundance Institute. We can also witness once emerging filmmakers Taika Waititi (Te Whanau Apanui) and Sterlin Harjo (Creek/Seminole Nations) serving as seasoned filmmakers and Creative Advisors supporting the next generation of artists at the Native Lab. We hope that we’ll cross your path somewhere along the way as May will be an exciting month for the Native American and Indigenous Program. We’ll be scouting for that next emerging filmmaker and unique project that we can consider for opportunities at Sundance Institute.

Taika Waititi premieres Boy at the 2010 Festival. Photo by Clayton Chase.

Through all the years of the Native Program’s work, there has been the creation and sustaining of an Indigenous film circle. The circle of our work begins by scouting for and identifying Native artists, bringing them through the mechanisms of Sundance Institute support to get their work made and shown, and then taking the filmmakers and their work back to Native Lands to inspire new generations of filmmakers and storytellers.

Our special thanks to all the Tribal Nations whose lands we are visiting. We thank you for welcoming us.

Native Lab Fellow Brian Young (Navajo) and Creative Advisor Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou; Talk to Me). Photo by Lindsey Shakespeare.

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