PARK CITY, Utah - The Sundance Film Festival may owe its name more to a Western outlaw comedy than to the sacred Plains Indian ritual, but the celebration of independent films founded by Robert Redford has won an Indian-friendly reputation with its annual Native Forum program, which has supported budding film-makers like Randy Redroad.
This year's Native program, part of the Jan. 16 - 26 Festival, expands the tradition with four world premieres and four U.S. premieres out of the total of 11 Indigenous films. Australia and New Zealand receive special emphasis, just as the Aboriginal experience is bursting into the movie world. (See related story.)
The sponsoring Sundance Institute is also presenting two seminars, including a screenwriting session led by New Zealand film-maker Merata Mita that, according to the Sundance announcement, will focus on "the unique forms of story-telling used by Indigenous filmmakers."
Bird Runningwater, the Sundance Institute programmer for Native American Initiatives, said this year's films result from "an emphasis on Indigenous creative control in writing and directing." Said Runningwater, they feature "bold uses of dramatic and documentary filmmaking that include themes of music, dance, kinship, cosmology, lamentations and hope."
The program opens Jan. 17 with the U.S. premiere of the Alanis Obomsawin documentary "Is the Crown at war with us?" The veteran Abenaki documentarian chronicles the conflict in the summer of 2000 between the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the Esgenoopetitj Mi'qmaq First Nation.
Obomsawin will also lead a seminar on "Indigenous Documentary Filmmaking," which, according to the Sundance Institute, will "explore the specific challenges faced by Indigenous filmmakers and their responsibility to their communities and the story."
The documentary program continues with "Pikutiskwaau (Mother Earth)," a feature-length film by Shirley Cheechoo, James Bay Cree, "tracing the Cree philosophy of Mother Earth." An actor and visual artist as well as director, Cheechoo has won numerous awards for her films, including Best Director at the Reel World Film Festival. According to her biographical material, she "is the first Aboriginal filmmaker in Canada to direct, produce, write and act in an award-wining dramatic feature film." The film, "Bearwalker," was shaped in previous Sundance Institute Writer and Director Labs.
Shorter documentaries include "Bundle in Good Standing" by Gabriel Whiteturkey, eastern Delaware, a U.S. premiere; "Sailing the Master Home," by Gilbert Salas, Tarahumara, and "Rangimarie," a world premiere from New Zealand's Puka Moeau, Rongowhakaata/Mahaki.
Whiteturkey's film concerns his grandmother and her ceremonial duties within Lenape society. Salas, representing the U.S., depicts a sailing journey through the South Pacific, navigating by the stars. Moeau focuses on a championship group in kapa haka, the traditional Maori dance, and the members' kaupapa, world outlook.
Along with the New Zealand presence, Sundance is also presenting the U. S. premieres of two Australian aboriginal films, "Beneath Clouds" by Ivan Sen, Gamilaroi, and "Shit Skin" by Nicholas Boseley, Arrernta.
Another world premiere comes from the Canadian Darlene Naponse, Whitefish Lake Ojibway. Her "Cradlesong" is a "musically driven feature with original songs" that "journey through the consequences and realities of a rural Native community."
The U.S. filmmaker Dax Thomas, Laguna Pueblo, contributes another world premiere, "Withdrawl," "a visual flurry of images representing sex, identity and ongoing conflicts." Shane Lee Eagle Hannigan, Yakama Nation, presents "Admirational," a short drama with spoken narrations over images.
The final world premiere comes from one of the Sundance Festival's more celebrated alumni, Randy Redroad, western Cherokee, whose critically acclaimed "Doe Boy" won its Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker's award in 2001. Redroad, who trained in the Sundance Institute's Filmmaker's and Producer's Labs, is back this year with "Moccasin Flats," a gritty short film about Native youth in the modern inner city.