N. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) and I began working on the Carte Blanche: Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program film exhibition over a year ago, when Bird told me that the Native American and Indigenous Program was 20 years old and that Sundance was planning to celebrate the anniversary with several shows around the United States. As a supporter of indigenous productions through exhibitions at MoMA (such as First Nations/First Features, a 2005 collaboration between MoMA, New York University, and the Smithsonian), I enthusiastically offered to work together on mounting an exhibition at MoMA.
Since we could not program all of the films ever made in the labs (over 300!), we decided to use our selections to illustrate both how the lab process works and the range of productions being created. We could trace, for example, how short dramas have turned into feature films, or reveal the ability of a film director to make a longer narrative work, as with Sikumi (2008) and On the Ice (2010), directed by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. There is also a stand-alone shorts program that shows poetic, experimental, and original story-form work. While traditional voice-over documentaries were the predominant style of native film production when the Sundance Institute was founded, today’s documentaries are much looser in form (while equally revelatory), and feature-length dramas are more the norm.
The films in the exhibition cover a wide range of subjects—many specific to various Native American and indigenous communities—but all touch on themes of a universal nature, from young love to the death of a parent. One topic that continues to predominate is the exploration of stereotypes—from Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1995), the first feature film written, directed, and produced by Native American filmmakers and the highest-grossing independent feature film of 1998, to one of the Native Lab’s latest features, Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest (2014), which premiered at the Sundance Festival in January.
N. Bird Runningwater has been the Director of Sundance’s Native American and Indigenous Program since 2001. Under his tenure, the program has supported Native American filmmaking, but it has also expanded internationally to support film production in Australia, in New Zealand, and among the Sami in Scandinavia. I interviewed Bird and asked him to talk about some of the major challenges that the program has faced since its founding 20 years ago.
N. Bird Runningwater: 20 years ago the fledgling Native filmmaking community had its roots deeply implanted in the documentary world thanks to the only support mechanism, which was PBS, CPB, and their minority consortia. Fiction filmmaking was still a dream, and it wouldn’t be until 1998 that the first feature films written, directed, and produced by Native Americans would premiere at Sundance Film Festival. Today there are more Native filmmakers working than ever before and so much content is being created, albeit on the independent model. The same challenges remain of scarce and limited resources to create work. Native films have yet to prove themselves at the box office, which limits how far they travel, but new digital distribution platforms are changing this. Despite these challenges, the stories themselves that Native filmmakers are telling are truly original, authentic, and unique, and tremendous growth has occurred in the Native filmmaking community thanks to Sundance Institute’s support, which is the only program doing this work in the U.S.
Sally Berger: You spoke to me about a new initiative that you are embarking on with the Sundance Institute to bring film education and production experience to younger Native audiences. Please explain what this is and why.
NBR: Sundance Institute has supported three generations of Native filmmakers from the early days of documentary with some of the founders of our Native film movement like George Burdeau, the late Phil Lucas, Sandy Sunrising Osawa, and Lena Carr, who were all essentially the first generation of Native Cinema. The second generation, people like Chris Eyre, Sherman Alexie, Randy Redroad, and Shirley Cheechoo, led our community’s foray into fiction filmmaking and had great impact. The third generation includes Sterlin Harjo, Billy Luther, BlackHorse Lowe, Heather Rae, Sydney Freeland, Andrew MacLean, and international indigenous filmmakers Taika Waititi and Warwick Thornton, all of whom excel in multiple forms and genres of filmmaking. If we arrange these generations into a medicine wheel, broken into four quadrants, we have a question mark in that fourth quadrant of the circle where the fourth generation is to be. We are realizing that younger generations may not take a traditional path to filmmaking and will be working more freely in digital filmmaking and online, so we’re building outreach and workshops to reach that generation to see if we can discover some new voices of this next generation and support them to get their work made and seen.
SB: What distinguishes the Native American and Indigenous Program from other Sundance Institute initiatives? Why was it important to create a separate program? What are the pros and cons of having a separate entity for Native and indigenous directors?
NBR: The Native Program exists because of the mandate of our founder and president, Robert Redford. Long before Sundance Institute was founded Mr. Redford created mentorship and workshop opportunities for Native filmmakers and he eventually expanded the concept and model to serve independent filmmakers in general through the founding of Sundance Institute. Since then the Institute has always had a specific commitment to Native filmmakers and has carried out this line of work in many different ways, among them being culturally relevant models of support and embedding labs on Native lands. But it was 20 years ago that the Institute brought on Native staffers to deepen this work and create a more lasting impact. The pros of this work include leveraging Sundance Institute’s influence to raise the profile of Native filmmakers and Native Cinema, which adds to the richness and complexity of American Cinema overall. The cons could revolve around a ghettoization of this particular community; for instance Sundance Film Festival created the Native Forum category in 1994 and retired the section in 2004 after 10 years of creating an important stage to raise the visibility of this community. While the category served an important purpose, since retiring the category Native films are now programmed in all sections across the festival and seem to travel further in their lives because of that.
SB: What is your history with film and with Native film production? How did you become involved with Sundance, and what are your hopes for the future of Native and indigenous film production?
NBR: I trained as a journalist in college and received degrees in journalism and Native American studies and a master’s in public policy. My early work in film began when I worked at the Ford Foundation helping to build the Media, Arts and Culture program, where I helped fund media projects in the U.S., Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Russia. This was nearly 20 years ago, and at that time the Native American film community was still fledgling and I knew I wanted to work at the ground level to increase production and the diversity of the kinds of stories that were being told. Being appointed to run the Institute’s Native Program has been a great opportunity to do these things and to launch the careers of some gifted filmmakers who are making in impact on the world today. My hope is that the momentum will continue to build and that our community of filmmakers will perforate that boundary that keeps us invisible in larger American popular culture. I believe it’s going to happen, thanks to Sundance’s commitment and the talent within Native communities.
SB: What special aspects and initiative have you brought or felt were important to focus on in your tenure with the Native and Indigenous Program?
NBR: When I came on board the program was primarily domestic and served North American Native filmmakers and growth was steady. But due to my own previous work in the international arena I saw that there was little connection between the indigenous filmmaking communities in New Zealand (Boy, 2010, directed by Taika Waititi), Australia (Samson and Delilah, 2009, directed by Warwick Thornton), and even the Scandinavian countries where the Sami people live. I decided to internationalize the program, building labs in New Zealand and Australia, and advising on international programs with the Sami Film Center in Norway. As a result we’ve built an international indigenous film community that travels fluidly across borders and supports one another on a global scale. This is one of the things of which I am most proud.
SB: What is special about the films in this exhibition? What will audiences find interesting?
The films in this exhibition represent a range of filmmakers who Sundance Institute has supported through our labs, grants, fellowships, and the platform of Sundance Film Festival. We’ve programmed short films which served as the kernels of ideas for feature films and we’ll be screening those side by side so audiences can see how these filmmakers have taken an idea or a moment from a short film and built it into a full-fledged feature. Many of these films have traveled the world winning awards and being distributed theatrically internationally. [The MoMA] Carte Blanche program is a testament to the possibilities of Native storytelling on the screen, and something that flourishes because Sundance Institute has maintained an investment and commitment to Native filmmakers and their stories.
SB: The idea of stereotypes is a theme that returns again and again throughout the films in the exhibition, from Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals in 1998 to Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest in 2014. Please talk about why this topic is so important as a Native and indigenous storytelling theme.
NBR: Well, in the 100-plus years of cinema there have been films made about Native peoples without the involvement of Native people in key creative positions. This results in generations of audiences being fed inaccuracies leading to the stereotyping of America’s first peoples. So when most Native filmmakers are trying to tell a story they often have to do as much deconstructing of these inaccuracies, all the while creating new narratives that will travel and reach the broadest audiences possible. The idea of what a Native film is is changing rapidly now that creative control in Native storytelling is happening more and more. The films in this Carte Blanche program are representative of Native artists daring to take risks and create rich, complex characters and stories that are relatable to many people and ones that are not just being trivialized and objectified. The late Jerry Wilkenson of the National Indian Youth Council wrote in the 1970s:
“As media consumers, Indian people are in a particularly harmful position. We consume the thoughts of others about the world and ourselves. The media has, for its own purposes, created a false image of the Native American. Too many of us have patterned ourselves after that image. It is time now that we project our own image and stop being what we never really were.”
SB: Our film selections for the exhibition include both narrative and documentary features and shorts, with a few experimental shorts. Does the Native American and Indigenous Program focus more on traditional conventions of film production rather than experimental and avant-garde styles?
NBR: Historically the Native Program, like Sundance Institute overall, has focused on more traditional conventions of cinema. But in refocusing our outreach and efforts to support the next generation we are looking more broadly at multimedia and digital storytellers. Sundance Institute has also moved into the terrain of multiplatform/transmedia storytelling, and we believe the next generations of Native filmmakers will be coming from this world as well.
Carte Blanche: Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program runs July 10 through 21 at MoMA.