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Eyre shines at Sundance

RAPID CITY, S.D. - Chris Eyre may be the premier director of American Indian films, but as an independent filmmaker he does not stand out as one of the country's top filmmakers.

Eyre, as he says, does not make films about American Indians, he makes films with good stories that happen to have American Indians in them.

Eyre, Cheyenne-Arapahoe, from Oregon is the director of "Smoke Signals," "Skins," "Skinwalkers, An American Mystery Special," for PBS, and other films.

His new movie "Edge of America," opened the Sundance Film festival.

It's tough getting contemporary American Indian movies made. "That's an understatement," Eyre said. "Unless it's independent movies like I make. I don't think studio heads see real value in doing contemporary portrayals of Indians, because they don't think there is any value other than the romantic Indian."

He said reaching the larger audience is limiting and can be difficult, because the large audience has a limited interpretation of what Indian people really are.

People ask Eyre if he plans to continue making American Indian movies. He said, "It's really not about that. It's about telling the stories I think are important and the stories I like just happen to have Indian people in them.

"I think the best ones transcend culture altogether. 'Smoke Signals' and this new movie 'Edge of America' take place in Native America, but by the end of the movie they transcend gender and they transcend race. That's when I know that they are victories, because they are about the human beings."

Eyre was drawn to the idea of "Edge of America" by the fact that it was a black coach on a reservation. "I don't think it has ever been explored," he said.

"What interested me was it was about real people and the fact that everybody had the same misconception about each other," Eyre said.

Kenny Williams, played by James McDaniel arrives on a reservation in Utah to teach at a reservation school and is coaxed into coaching a losing girl's basketball team.

Eyre said the Hollywood version would have had the outsider come in and help the kids overcome their demons.

"What about his demons? Nobody is perfect in this movie, they are all really flawed and real and good people."

Eyre is one of a very few filmmakers who happens to be an American Indian with knowledge of the culture. As he explained, it's important because of the complexity of Indian country. But there are few filmmakers and writers who can tell the stories properly.

"It takes the writers. If you know anything about Indians, it's how little you know about Indians. People don't understand the complexity that incorporates what is called Native America. It's the most diverse and complicated group of American people.

"There's no way that one person, writer, artist, filmmaker or actor can really portray what Indian country is. And I'm proud of that. I'm proud of the fact that we are indescribable."

Eyre said with a laugh that people are interested in finding out about gaming or sovereignty, "if they care."

"We need young Native writers to get their point of view and young Native actors with their point of view. For any artist, it is not about the medium you work in. Young people who have an opinion and who have an outlook on life, it is about expression. That expression needs to find a medium to be translated by an art form that people can use to see or hear or absorb.

"It's about the expression."