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Sundance '07 showcases Native cinema

PARK CITY, Utah - Six indigenous directors showcased their work at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival as part of the event's continuing effort to promote talented Native filmmakers.

Billy Luther, Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo, was one of four American Indian filmmakers selected to feature their films as part of the festival's Native Forum.

''The Native Initiative really helped me throughout the whole process of working on my film,'' said Luther, whose film, ''Miss Navajo,'' made its world premiere on the third day of the 10-day festival.

The three other American Indian filmmakers include Sterlin Harjo, Creek/Seminole; Nanobah Becker, Dine'; and Jonathan Pulley, Laguna Pueblo. Two indigenous directors, Taika Waititi from New Zealand and Auraeus Solito from the Philippines, were also selected to showcase their films.

Luther said he worked for nearly four years to complete ''Miss Navajo,'' a film that looks into the inner beauty of the Miss Navajo pageant and followed one contestant's run for the title. Its premiere, which was held on Jan. 20, was the first time anyone - including the cast and Luther's mother, a former Miss Navajo - had seen the completed film. ''Miss Navajo'' was featured five more times during the festival.

Two other indigenous films, ''Four Sheets to the Wind'' by Harjo and ''Eagle vs. Shark'' by Waititi, made their world premieres at the festival, which ran from Jan. 18 - 28 in Park City.

The Native American and Indigenous Initiative has a long history with the Sundance Institute. During the past 25 years, the Native Initiative has featured more than 50 indigenous writers and directors, and in excess of 100 indigenous films.

''The number of Native filmmakers seems to grow every year,'' Luther said. ''I'm really proud to be a part of the six that are here this year.''

The Native Initiative supports the development of American Indian and indigenous filmmakers, giving them an opportunity to exhibit their work. In addition to featuring selected Native films, the Native Initiative also provides guidance to aspiring filmmakers and creates programs that will help educated the public about Native cinema.

At the 2007 festival, the Native Forum presented a panel discussion on ''The Burden of Representation.'' The forum focused on the weight a filmmaker carries when they direct or write a film that is based on behalf of an entire community, whether they mean to do this or not.

''Four Sheets'' tells the story of Cufe Smallhill, a young man born and raised on the reservation who explores life in the big city to find a more fulfilling existence. The film welcomes the viewer into the unconventional setting of the American Indian community, but explores the themes and values that exist in the larger, mainstream society.

''It's like Sterlin Harjo says, 'I want to make great movies that happen to feature Native characters,''' said Luther, who said he benefits from the close-knit Native filmmaker community.

Similar to Luther, Harjo received guidance from the Native Initiative and the Sundance Institute. Harjo completed development for ''Four Sheets,'' his first feature film, through the Sundance Filmmakers Lab and in 2004 was selected as an Annenberg Fellow.

Fellowships are an additional feature of the Native Initiative. The Sundance Institute/Ford Foundation Film Fellowship has provided an outreach to young Native talent. The fellowship supports emerging, next-generation Native and indigenous filmmakers whose work is defining the next wave of Native cinema, according to the Native Initiative.

Each year the Native Initiative selects four recipients who have a project in development to attend the Sundance Film Festival. During their fellowship at the festival, they participate in one-on-one meetings with successful and established filmmakers and leaders in the industry. Fellows also attend all Native Forum activities and events, and receive ongoing support to develop their projects.

This year's fellows include Ginew Benton, Ojibway/Cree, who is working on a film titled ''Looking Glass'' about a young man who builds a time machine to prevent his father's assassination. When he realizes he can't prevent his father's death, he travels back in time to the first contact between Europeans and American Indians. The three other fellows include Julianna Brannum, Comanche; Melissa Henry, Dine'; and Nathan Young, Pawnee/Kiowa/Delaware.

The Native Initiative's activities continue to grow each year, aiding and promoting the success of indigenous filmmakers and the global awareness of Native cinema.

''I am very proud to have my first feature film be a part of the Sundance Film Festival,'' Harjo said during the screening of ''Four Sheets.''

''I sincerely thank the Sundance Institute for all of the opportunities they have given me.''