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Interview with Native filmmaker Stacey Fox

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - On Nov. 14, the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College opened their month-long exhibition of "Chuang Tzu's Pow Wow Drum," a film directed and produced by Stacey Fox. The instrumental soundtrack for the film was performed live at the opening for playback at the exhibition. The three copies of the film will run out of synch, simultaneously, on three screens set up side-by-side through Dec. 15.

"There is no text in 'Chuang Tzu's Pow Wow Drum,' it's all movement and imagery with sound scores that were performed live when we played the film at its premiere," Fox told Indian Country Today. "The film is based on my practices as a student of Taoism and the relationship I have found between Taoism and the Native American concept of Wakonda, or the universal force of all things. It incorporates Native American pow wow dancing with Chinese brush painting as well as a lot of nature throughout the film. There are also modern-day scenes filmed in Chinatown in New York City, as a juxtaposition to the prairie grass, to show that the Tao, or the universal force of Wakonda, flows through everything, everywhere, even in the inner cities. It was also an educational project; I worked with students from Jeva Singhs' Film class at Walthill School from the Omaha Indian Reservation who are into film. The students on the Omaha reservation are some of the brightest, most creative and intelligent students I have ever worked with and they really had an impact on how I decided to go about making this particular film."

Fox first came to attention in Indian country when she started shooting "Children of the Wakarusa," a documentary about the inhumane treatment of Native children at the Haskell Boarding School in Lawrence, Kan. during the early part of the 20th century. While Fox hoped to have the documentary out by now, she had to move her studio at one point and all of her projects fell behind. She had been working on "Chuang Tzu's Pow Wow Drum" for five years and wanted a change after working with the heaviness of the Haskell film for so long. "My first film, 'Cultivating Stillness,' was a sound score with just film and motion," Fox said. "As a composer and a musician and a filmmaker, a lot of my work is with movement and people, like modern dancers. After Haskell, and that's such an intense film to work on, it was nice to work on something that was just pure movement, pure essence. Haskell was a horrendous holocaust, but at the end of the documentary there is hope because of the resilience of the Native spirit." The young filmmaker said the documentary will be out in the spring of 2004.

All of Fox's influences are decidedly from the avant-garde, such as Maya Deren, the mother of independent film who experimented with the medium as an extension of dance. "My biggest influence is Kurosawa, the Japanese filmmaker," Fox said. Akira Kurosawa is best known for his meditation on reality, "Rashomon," and his existential Samurai epics, such as "Yojimbo."

"You can see his influence in this film, but also John Cage and Merce Cunningham," she said. Composer Cage and choreographer Cunningham developed music and dance that was composed, but indeterminate, like a game, so that they could never be performed the same way twice.

"The way we approached the music in 'Chuang Tzu's Pow Wow Drum' was like Cage and Cunningham because the musicians came together for the first time the night before the performance and they were given a visual representation of the score," Fox said. "They had actual clips from the film with just the barest minimum of a meter that I wanted or a feeling or a texture. Then they were able to fill in the rest. We ran the film twice the night before and the score was similar each time we ran it, but it was also different. The film is running in the museum right now on three plasma screens and each screen is showing the same film, but it's started on each screen at a different place, so you are seeing three totally different images all at the same time, yet it's the same sound score that's being played for all of them. If you see it in the museum you'll never see it the same way twice. The approach is like John Cage, but all of Cage's ideas of indeterminacy have a foundation in Eastern Philosophy."

Fox has been in residency on the Omaha Reservation over the past year collaborating with students and teachers as well as local Native artists through the Lied Center for the Performing Arts - UNL as part of a Kennedy Center Partners in Education grant and a National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America Grant. In December 2002 she was commissioned by the American Composers Forum through their Continental Harmony Project to compose a new work for the Omaha Nation Band in commemoration of their 200th pow wow celebration and the Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial both being celebrated in August 2004 by the Omaha Tribe. She is also finishing two other short documentaries, "Nikaani Kaapaa" - The story of John Edwards, former chief of the Absentee-Shawnee in Oklahoma and "New Dawn Native Dancers," about a group of young Native dancers from Lawrence, Kan. led by Bruce and Leanne Martin.

The exhibit the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery is free and open to the public. For more information on the exhibit, visit chuangtzuspowwowdrum.com.