Carte Blanche at MOMA: Sundance’s Greatest Hits from the Native American and Indigenous Film Program July 10–21, 2014

by H.S. Bayer

Native American and Indigenous filmmakers are rooted in a long and deep tradition of storytelling…
–Sundance Institute president and founder Robert Redford–

Commemorating this year’s 20th anniversary of the Native American and Indigenous Program, at Sundance Institute, he continued: “I am proud of the work that Sundance Institute has done over the past 20 years to encourage Native American artists to share their stories, take risks with their work, share their time and expertise with their communities and help younger Native American artists to do the same.

Fittingly, this exhibition consists of 20 films divided into 10 programs of dramatic features and documentaries—nine features and 11 shorts—by Native American and indigenous directors from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. New works include 3 of the 4 Native and indigenous  films that were at Sundance in 2014 plus earlier works from Taika Waititi, (Te Whanau a Apanui),  the director of the fourth – What We Do in the Shadows(2013), a vampire comedy from New Zealand which will screen commercially in North America later this year or early next. The series was organized by Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Department of Film, the Museum of Modern Art, and N. Bird Runningwater, (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache), Director of the Sundance Native American and Indigenous Film Program.

'Drunktown's Finest' Writer/Director Sydney Freeland

‘Drunktown’s Finest’ Writer/Director Sydney Freeland

Program one opened the exhibition, on July 10th, with 2 films from this year’s Sundance Film Festival, screening several times through Wednesday July 16. The program pairs Wakening (2013), Canadian director Danis Goulet’s (Cree/Metis) short, about a Cree wanderer, set in a post-apocalyptic near-future and Drunktown’s Finest (2014) from New Mexico’s up and coming first time feature director, Sydney Freeland (Navajo). Drunktown’s Finest is a groundbreaking, female helmed, genre busting, LGBT, coming of age, multi threaded story made with an almost all Navajo cast. Freeland developed the film over several years aided by going through all of the Sundance Labs – Native, Writing, Directing and Producing – where the project caught the interest of Robert Redford, who ultimately threw support behind the film as Executive Producer. Sydney Freeland came to the opening and participated in a Q &A, co-moderated by Sally Berger and Bird Runningwater. The film has run in over 20 Film Festivals and screening events, simultaneous with this event showing at Outfest in Los Angeles. It screened in Sundance’s London showcase this past spring and is part of the upcoming Sundance Native and Indigenous Film Program showings in Santa Fe at the end of August.

The second program consists of two films from Chris Eyre, (Cheyenne/Arapaho). His short, Tenacity  (1994) and his breakout feature, Smoke Signals (1998), which won the 1998 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Prize and Filmmaker’s Trophy and put Native American filmmakers on the map, screened on July 11, with Eyre in attendance, and has a second showing on July 18. It has been reported, though not widely promulgated, that Eyre presented Smoke Signals with an alternate ending, at a theatre in Gallup NM (AKA – Drunktown), in early February. Apparently the  audience reacted positively, raising the possibility (though probably cost-prohibitive) this may be one of the last times the movie will be formally screened, in its current form.  With this in mind…

Sterlin Harjo

Sterlin Harjo

This May Be the Last Time (2014), directed by Sterlin Harjo, (Creek/Seminole), comprises the third program, showing, for the second and last time in the series on July 18, after Smoke Signals. The first screening, on July 12, featured an excellent discussion with Harjo, Runningwater and Berger, following the film. This May Be the Last Time, which premiered this year at Sundance, is the first feature documentary from Harjo, who previously established his reputation in narrative features – the Spirit Award nominated Four Sheets to the Wind (2007 )and the follow-up film Barking Water which was a 2009 Sundance selection. In This May Be the Last Time, Harjo starts out investigating his grandfather’s mysterious 1962 disappearance in a small OK river, and ends up on a journey through history, as documented, in the songs the Seminole people sang, on the ‘Trail of Tears’, and continue to sing today. Strangely enough, Sterlin finds a link between these melodies, Scottish Baptist hymnals and African American spirituals of the early 19th century and somehow demonstrates a direct progression to the Motown hit “This May Be the Last Time.” You’ll never listen the same way to the Rolling Stones cover of the song.

Programs 4 through nine were all set to screen twice: On July 12, Sundance Favorite, New Zealander Taika Waititi, (Te Whanau a Apanui), was there in person for the showing of his short, Two Cars, One Night (2004) and his crowd-pleasing Boy (2010).  An Academy Award-nominee, for his feature debut Eagle Vs. Shark (2007),Waititi directed and also delivers a strong over the top performance, in the lead role as Boy’s returning wayward stoner Dad, in this 1984 New Zealand Maori period piece where pot and adorable Kiwi kids seem to sprout everywhere.  Boy ultimately became the largest grossing New Zealand made film ever.  The film’s second screening – Saturday afternoon, July 19.

Film_Festival_Reporter_John TrudellRunning next on July 19, the 10 minute Gesture Down (2006), directed by Cedar Sherbert (Kumeyaay) is an adaptation of the poem “Gesture Down to Guatemala,” by James Welch (Blackfeet). The short appropriately, leads into a feature documentary about one of the coolest and deepest Political Poets, this country has ever known – John Trudell, (Santee Dakota-American).  Trudell (2005), was directed by mid-westerner Heather Rae (Cherokee), former head of the Native Program at Sundance and prolific producer as well, most recently with I Believe in Unicorns (2014), from first-time feature filmmaker Leah Meyerhof which premiered at SXSW this year and ran in June at the Brooklyn Int. FF, Atlanta Film Festival (where it won Grand Jury Prize),  among a slew of others after gaining early traction and assistance in NYC from Tribeca FF’s All Access and IFP’s narrative labs. Heather labored for years making the powerful Trudell, profiling a true hero of the underdog… one of the leaders in the taking of Alcatrez… a man who beat City Hall, defeating the Federal Government at its own game – tricking them into doing the right thing but paying a heavy personal price… who rose up from immense despair, after his pregnant wife and three children were killed, in a suspicious fire that showed clear signs of deliberate arson… reinventing himself as a spoken word poet whose words unerringly unmask the ethical and moral bankruptcy, of a corrupt modern power structure that justifies its transgressions, in the name of progress… a poet whose further evolution led to one hell of a band (Bad Dog).  Finally in 2005, three decades after Alcatrez, Trudell premiered at Sundance.  These days his words ring truer than ever.  The film will be followed by a discussion with Heather Rae.  Here’s a link to my favorite John Trudell Song, which I was fortunate enough to record with a couple of cameras, at his band’s performance, when the film played at Tribeca FF in 2005:…the more evil the empire, the more paranoid the society…

Program Six elegantly combines a longish 25 minute short, about an Australian Aboriginal DJ  -Greenbush (2005), directed by Aussie Warwick Thornton, (Kaytej Nation) with the award-winning 58 minute film Miss Navajo (2007), directed by Billy Luther (Navajo/Hopi/Laguna); resulting in 83 minutes of runtime – nearly the perfect length for feature films in today’s environment. Miss Navajo examines the role of women and tradition in Déné (Navajo) culture through the eyes of a young contestant for the Miss Navajo Nation crown – a Miss America like event without all the blondes and dumb blond questions. Luther’s Native Program supported documentary, about the Laguna Pueblo tribe, Grab premiered at the Sundance FF in 2011.The program screens for the last time on July 20.

Both of Australian Director Rachel Perkins’ (Arrernte/Kalkadoon Nations) features: One Night the Moon (2001 )and Bran Nue Dae (2010) have been supported and showcased by the Native Program.  Bran Nue Dae, an adaptation of a popular stage musical by Jimmy Chi, is set in Perth in 1969 and confronts the clash of cultures between Anglo/Christian assimilation in the urban areas and the “uncivilized,”  Aboriginal homelands. The film became a big hit in Australia and screens July 16 and again on July 20.

A Native American Shorts Program comprised of 5 films runs July 17 and the final day, July 21:

49?(2003) – directed by celebrated poet and filmmaker Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene). His feature, The Business of Fancydancing (2002), was one of the earlier Native American success stories at Sundance.

Nikamowin (2008) – directed by Kevin Lee Burton,(God’s Lake Narrows Cree). Deconstructing and reconstructing Cree narrative, this film experiments with language to create a linguistic soundscape.

OK Breathe Auralee (2012) – directed by Brooke Swaney (Blackfeet/Salish).

The Cave (2010) – directed by Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot’in).

Shimásání (2009) – directed by Blackhorse Lowe (Déné).


Sterlin Harjo at Sundance

Also screening on the 17th and July 21, Samson and Delilah (2009) was directed by Warwick Thornton (Kaytej Nation), with Marissa Gibson as Delilah. A visually striking love story and battle for survival  in the Central Australian desert, the film won the Caméra d’Or award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and Best Film at the 2009 Australian Film Institute Awards at which Gibson was nominated for Best Lead Actress and shared the prize for Young Actor.

Saturday evening July 19 presents 2008 Sundance Film Festival’s Short Filmmaking Jury winning film Sikumi and its director, Alaska native Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (Iñupiaq), along with his feature On the Ice (2010). Ice is more than metaphor in these 2 works – it’s all around you at seal hunts.  You can almost imagine Flahertys’ (1922) Nanook of the North, morphing from lead subject to filmmaker… making a rural crime mystery and catching himself a pair of boots and dinner for his dog team during the setups. MacLean is widely regarded as a major emerging talent.

We at and Indie Film Reporter and its compatriots congratulate all the people at the Sundance Institute, past and present for 20 years of invaluable work and remaining committed to president and founder Robert Redford’s original vision, supporting native/indigenous filmmakers since its founding. The Program has built and sustained a unique circle of support for indigenous film by scouting for and identifying artists, helping them through lab and grant programs to get their projects made and shown, and taking the filmmakers with their work, back to Native communities, to inspire new generations of storytellers. Currently operating labs and fellowships in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia; the program has established a rich legacy of work and supported more than 300 filmmakers.

Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache), Director of the Sundance Native Program said, “I am honored to be celebrating 20 years of support for some of the most creative and impactful Native American and indigenous voices of our time.

Coming up next month: The Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Screening Series will be at Jean Cocteau Cinema, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from August 20 to 24. In conjunction with the Santa Fe Indian Market, Sundance Institute will screen 6 feature-length films and 2 short films including: Drunktown’s FinestMiss Navajo, On the Ice, Skins (2002) by Chris Eyre, Boy, This May Be the Last Time, Shimásání by Blackhorse Lowe, and Gesture Down – I Don’t Sing by Ceder Sherbert.

A month later, Redford’s Santa Fe hometown will be treated to a 5 week screening series at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, in Santa Fe, from August 31st to October 4th. Several feature films programmed by Sundance Institute will show in the Kathryn O’Keefe Theatre. Artists and films announced, as of now, include Smoke Signals by Chris Eyre, Boy by Taika Waititi, On the Ice by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, Trudell by Heather Rae and Incident at Oglala (1992 ) directed by Michael Apted and produced by Robert Redford during his heavy activist period 20 years ago – John Trudell was an advisor to the film. Knowing New Mexico and a number of its residents, I would expect a heck of a 20th Anniversary Opening Event to be matched only by the Closing Celebration. Skip the Hamptons this year, book an Airbnb and spend Labor Day in Santa Fe.


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