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Films at Agua Caliente Festival Wrestle with Indigenous Identity

Many of the films showing at the tenth annual Festival of Native Film and Culture, which gets underway Wednesday at the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum in Palm Springs, California, show the striking similarities in the experiences of indigenous people around the world.

In Rabbit-Proof Fence, a young black girl leads two others in an escape from an Australian government camp designed to train domestic workers for white society. The three walk 1,500 miles walk across the outback along a fence she knows will lead them home. The plot reminds Michael Hammond, the festival's executive director, of an episode in Palm Springs' history. Sometime around the 1920s, he says, two sisters were taken away from the Agua Caliente band of Cahuilla Indians to a boarding school in Banning, California, about twenty miles from their home near Palm Springs. “They were there in Banning for a while and then they just decided they wanted to go home,” says Hammond. "So, like the young aboriginal women who followed the rabbit-proof fence, these young women knew that if they kept the mountains on their right as the were walking they would eventually get back to Palm Springs. They left Banning early in the morning and got home about evening. When the man who ran the boarding school showed up, the girls’ father told him that the sisters were staying home. The fact that they had left such horrible conditions, and the fact that they walked all the way home, showed how much they loved where they lived—so goodbye! I think the film parallels what happened here."

Hammond expects the film Two Spirits to be one of this year’s highlights. Fred Martinez was a Navajo náádleehíí boy (one who constantly transforms)—a male-bodied person with a feminine nature, a special gift according to his ancient Indian culture.

“Palm Springs is about one-third gay/lesbian population and I think this is the first time for that population to be exposed to the fact that, among native peoples, to be of two spirits is to be revered. The attitude is, ‘You have much more than anyone else has.’ Among the Navajo there are four genders, male, female, females who are in male bodies, and males who are in female bodies. It’s totally accepted.”

A Maori film, Boy, will show on opening night to kick off the festival. “It’s a coming of age, identity film. Am I Maori, or am I a New Zealander? It’s a really great film,” Hammond said. The film’s star is a dreamer who idolizes Michael Jackson and whose brother is thought to have magical powers.

This year’s lineup includes a wide variety of films ranging from short films originating in Hawaii and those of hilarious comedic content with strong messages, to finely crafted documentaries.

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A Canadian documentary, QBQM takes viewers to a small citizen-run radio station north of the Arctic Circle in Canada’s Northwest Territory. The station’s storytelling and country music have, for three decades, been essential to the local identity in the 800-inhabitant town of Ft. McPherson.

In "Green Bush”, an Australian short, an aboriginal DJ in the Australian bush realizes that his work at the country radio station is about much more than just playing music.

“The part of the festival I like more than anything are the short films.,” Hammond said. “These are young, new directors pouring their hearts out into these five and ten minute films. They’re just wonderful!”

The festival’s closing film is Bran Nue Dae, an Australian Aboriginal film that ran for nine years in that country on stage as a musical. “It was decided to make a film out of it and it’s hysterically funny, it’s uplifting and again, it’s about identity,” Hammond said. “This is the first musical we’ve ever shown and it’s a rare opportunity in the aboriginal film world to have a musical film.”

Films from Bolivia and Mexico round out the film festival.

The Mexican documentary 2501 Migrants: A Journey explores global migration, and especially the plight of young indigenous Mexicans who leave their native homes to seek employment and a brighter future. In the film, Mexican artist Alejandro Santiago returns to his village to realize that Oaxaca has become one of Mexico's leading exporters of human labor to the United States, leaving his village a virtual ghost town. To repopulate his home town he creates an artwork of 2,501 life-sized sculptures—one for each immigrant who left.

The Festival of Native Film and Culture lights up the silver screens at the Camelot Theatres in central Palm Springs March 2 through 6. The five days are expected to bring 2,000 people to see the festival’s 13 films.