Native American Filmmakers Arrive at Sundance

Bird Runningwater heads the Sundance Initiative, which helps produce new works by both Native Americans and Indigenous people worldwide. He talks about Native American fillmmakers and the Sundance film festival, which begins Thursday.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

The 2007 Sundance Film Festival starts tomorrow in Utah. It runs through the 28th. Created by actor and filmmaker Robert Redford, the annual festival brings together film fans with both famous and up-and-coming producers, directors and actors. If you've got the skis and the skills, you can hit the slopes, too. Lesser known in the festival is the Sundance Institute. It's a yearlong program that develops new talent, and one of its divisions is the Native-American and Indigenous Initiative. Bird Runningwater directs the Sundance Initiative, which helps produce new works by both Native Americans and Indigenous peoples worldwide. To do his job, he has to look for new talent and keep an eye on other films with diverse casts.

Mr. BIRD RUNNINGWATER (Associate Director, Native-American and Indigenous Initiative for the Sundance Film Festival): I basically scout for filmmakers. I look for filmmakers who have really original and authentic voices. I look for a feature film script that a filmmaker might have that we can get behind and help develop. And then on the other end, in terms of scouting for films for the festival, I scout for finished films that have already been made that we can consider for programming opportunities at Sundance.

CHIDEYA: You know, there's one of the - you have both documentaries and feature films, short and long, in your folder - or your portfolio. And one of them is "Miss Navajo," which is about the Miss Navajo pageant and the Navajo Nation -really fascinating film. And there's just a few moments that stand out to me. One of them is where one of the contestants is talking about killing a sheep for the pageant. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of movie, "Miss Navajo")

Unidentified Woman #1: (unintelligible) desperate thing.

Unidentified Woman #2: Uh-huh.

Unidentified Woman #1: I'm afraid that to (unintelligible), well, there's your sheep. (unintelligible) like huge. I was like, I'm sorry, and now I kill you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: (unintelligible) took a picture of me like when I cut the throat, you know, how the blood spurts out (unintelligible) cut through the vein. I punctured it. And on one my pages, my college Web page, and my friends are like, oh, my God, Jean(ph). I'm so horrified, you sheep killer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: So, this is kind of brains, beauty, ability to speak the Navajo language - which is a huge deal for some of the contestants - and your ability to basically take care of a plot of land, including being someone who can raise and butcher a sheep. What is all that that goes into the Miss Navajo pageant say about the culture and the traditions of the Navajo Nation?

Mr. RUNNINGWATER: Well, I think one of the things that this film really explores is a really deep, philosophical perspective of the woman within Navajo society. And the Navajos are matriarchal and matrilineal culture, so in this pageant, the women are really - it's really a cultural pageant and really acknowledging the fact that women are the backbones of those communities and those families.

CHIDEYA: Some people have a hard time speaking Navajo. And part of the reason why people don't speak Navajo is because of U.S. policy to take kids into boarding schools and to strip them of their language. There's a section where we hear one of the former Miss Navajos talking about that. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite from the movie "Miss Navajo")

Unidentified Woman #3: My grandmother did not want me going to school. Going to school in the dominant society, it wasn't so - felt wasn't so valuable to her in those days. So, finally, the Bureau of Indian Affairs told her, look. It's the law. Your granddaughter has to go to school. I was brought into the boarding school by my grandmother, and she left the building. She's crying -cried out because maybe she thought she was losing her granddaughter.

CHIDEYA: What does it mean to keep that part of history alive? A part of history that a lot of Americans don't know about?

Mr. RUNNINGWATER: In "Miss Navajo," I think that perspective is really presented - mostly for the native community. Because I think a lot of youth today kind of - are growing up without language and without culture, without understanding a historical context for why things don't exist any more.

CHIDEYA: Black filmmaking in America is at - what you might consider a strange juncture point, where, in the past, there were race movies that were with black actors for black audiences. Then you began to see mixed casts and mixed audience appeal. Now you have movies - whether they have predominantly black cast or mixed cast - they seem to be seen mostly by a white audience. How is that different from what goes on with Native-American and indigenous filmmaking?

Mr. RUNNINGWATER: Well, I think, one of the things that the African-American community has is they have had a long history of involvement in the entertainment industry. I think the difference with indigenous filmmaking is that we are working completely outside the system at this point. You know, there's no Native-American executives working in the film industry, except for myself.

And then a lot of the filmmakers that I'm working with are a lot of self-taught filmmakers, a lot of filmmakers who are just striving just to make, you know, one short film or one documentary or one feature film and then see - to see what happens, because we don't really have a path or a trajectory of involvement with the entertainment industry yet.

CHIDEYA: I know there's a lot of black folks - including friends of mine - who say what is up with black film today? And that don't like it all...

Mr. RUNNINGWATER: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...you know, what's going on with mainstream black film. Do you think that there are things that black American filmmakers could learn from the burgeoning Native film market?

Mr. RUNNINGWATER: Well, I know one of the things that I always - I and my colleagues are always looking for is, you know, we're always looking for, you know, aesthetic diversity. And I have to say that, you know, the art film from the African-American community is something that's really rare, something that really kind of diverges from, you know, genre films or from, you know, more commercial-related films.

And I think that one of the things that Native-American filmmakers do is -because they come from an oral tradition, a lot of times the structures of our films and the aesthetic of our films really reflect cultural ways of storytelling. So, I think, for the African-American filmmaker, I think they did really go back and try to reflect the oral tradition that they come from, and also the different spaces and the different places that they've traveled and to places where they've reached today.

CHIDEYA: Well, Bird Runningwater, thank you so much.

Mr. RUNNINGWATER: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Bird Runningwater is associate director of the Native American and Indigenous Initiatives for the Sundance Film Festival.

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