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Filmmakers bring indigenous perspectives to Sundance

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PARK CITY, Utah - Indigenous directors shared their experiences and knowledge with young filmmakers and festivalgoers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.

''I think this is a really interesting discussion to have about representation,'' said Heather Rae, Cherokee, who facilitated a panel discussion titled ''The Burden of Representation'' that featured four indigenous filmmakers.

''As Native filmmakers, we have to have some kind of notion at what we are doing,'' said Rae, who was director of the Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous Initiative from 1995 to 2001. Rae premiered her feature film, ''Trudell,'' at the 2005 Sundance festival.

N. Bird Runningwater, the initiative's current associate director, took over the Native program six years ago and has continued to work to raise the profile of indigenous directors at Sundance and increase their success as filmmakers worldwide.

''The institute has always carried a deep commitment to coordinating with Native and indigenous filmmakers,'' said Runningwater, Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache. ''One of the things that Heather did was build a wonderful foundation that I was able to come into and really build on top of to really uplift the indigenous voices within cinema, and to indigenize the films that appear of the screens at this festival and festivals around the world.''

At this year's festival, six indigenous filmmakers were selected to show their work. The four American Indian directors at the festival included Sterlin Harjo, Creek/Seminole; Nanobah Becker, Dine'; Jonathan Pulley, Laguna Pueblo; and Billy Luther, Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo. Taika Waititi from New Zealand and Auraeus Solito from the Philippines were also selected to showcase their films.

Of the 7,732 films submitted for the 2007 festival, 196 were screened.

''One of the ways that we were able to help Native filmmakers this year was by having six films in the festival that competed globally on a scale of more than 7,500 films, and I'm really proud of that,'' Runningwater told the audience at the panel discussion.

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''The Burden of Representation'' panel featured Harjo, Luther, Waititi and Solito. The directors shared their experiences as Native filmmakers and the struggles that they have faced.

''The one thing that we lack in movies about Native Americans is just true, honest stories that just happen to be about Natives,'' said Harjo, whose film, ''Four Sheets to the Wind,'' premiered at the festival.

Harjo, a native of Oklahoma, said he enjoys writing stories about Oklahoma people, but he does not want to limit himself to telling stories only about his community.

Unlike Harjo, who has worked on several short films and other projects about American Indians, Solito, who traces his roots to the indigenous Palaw'an islanders of South Palawan, Philippines, has been unsuccessful in creating an indigenous film.

''No one wants to produce a tribal movie,'' he said. ''I've been struggling to ask mainstream producers to do my first tribal feature film but I ended up making two gay films.''

Solito, whose film ''Tuli'' made its U.S. premiere at Sundance, said he wants to make films about the tribes in the Philippines but has found more success directing gay cinema, such as ''Tuli,'' which features a young girl from a remote Philippine village who rejects an arranged marriage for an alternative lifestyle.

Luther, director of ''Miss Navajo,'' has found success in creating stories about his community and family, and said he believes it is important for Natives to be the ones to tell their own stories.

''I think we just need get our stories out there,'' Luther said. ''We don't have to only tell the victimization stories; we can tell the stories about the things we have to offer as a culture. And we need to be the ones telling our own stories.''