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Young filmmakers shine at Native American Film and Video Festival

NEW YORK – The recent Native American Film and Video Festival confirmed it: There is a spectacular growth under way in the number of Native filmmakers and the quality of their productions.

Organized by the Film and Video Center of the National Museum of the American Indian, the 13th Native American Film and Video Festival took place in New York Nov. 30 – Dec. 3. The festival screened 130 films and shorts by Native directors, producers, writers, actors, musicians and technicians. More than 10,000 people attended the screenings, which were free.

“It was really good,” said Elizabeth Weatherford, the festival’s founding director.

“If you look at over 25 years of doing this festival, the movement from predominantly films done by non-Native directors working closely with an Indian community to a festival that’s 90 to 95 percent by Native directors is well worth mentioning. There seems to be something happening, which is making film more available to more people, and the work that’s being produced is really, really high quality.”

Four selectors and the center’s staff culled the 130 selections from an astounding 550 submissions. One of the outstanding features of this year’s festival was the number of new young directors and producers, Weatherford said.

“We were able to screen at least 50 works by directors under the age of 30. These emerging filmmakers became the heart of the festival this year and we were thrilled with seeing what the next generation of filmmaker is beginning to look like,” Weatherford said.

The group of around 60 young filmmakers will be a cohort “connected to each other through professional work and seeing each other and paying attention to what’s happening the rest of their lives, and it made it seem as if this was a first-time festival instead of a 13th festival, because it was so infused with this new initiative and new sense of hope and promise in the field,” Weatherford said.

The festival kicked off with “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” a new feature film directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Inuit, and Norm Cohn. “The Journals” was the highly anticipated follow-up to Kunuk’s acclaimed film, “Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner).” It explored the coming of Christianity and commerce to the Inuit lands in the Canadian North seen through the eyes of the last great shaman of Igloolik and his headstrong daughter. “The Journals” was the opening film at the Toronto International Film Festival and was shown at the New York Film Festival earlier this year.

The films were organized thematically. One theme, called “Our Lands Are Not For Sale,” dealt with the relationship between Native peoples and their homelands, to sacred lands, lands that have been removed from their control or where they no longer can live. The issues of multinational development on indigenous lands as well as the intervention of national or international forces against indigenous rights were highlighted.

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Under the theme of “This is Who I Am,” several younger filmmakers in the United States, Canada and Mexico produced fictional and documentary films dealing with the question of identity; of dealing with the dichotomy of living in cities, while having strong connections to the reservation where families are; of cultural mixtures, racial mixtures and gender roles. A number of young filmmakers looked at their own identities in connection with the lives of elders in their communities.

Another prominent theme was the idea that language is at the core of meaning of being indigenous.

“We pulled together a group of films that are very interesting, somewhat freely constructed, called ‘Our Languages, Our Stories,’ and it included animations of traditional stories and specific views of how Native language makes a difference. One of them is even called ‘Why Save the Language?’

“Another looks at a community-based radio station where everything is in the language, and we showed a fiction called ‘Goodnight, Irene’ by Sterling Harjo [Seminole/Creek], a very up-and-coming young filmmaker, whose first feature film is being shown at the Sundance Festival in January, one in which knowing your own language plays a key role in the film’s outcome,” Weatherford said.

Other films included a feature film by Navajo filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe called “Fifth World,” a contemporary love story, and a documentary by Mohawk filmmaker Tracy Deer about three young women growing up on the Kahnawake Reserve outside of Montreal.

The film festival also hosts workshops where the filmmakers can talk about issues and new developments in Native media as well as educational opportunities for young filmmakers to hone their craft.

“It was really good. I think the National Museum of the American Indian tries to give a meeting place to the indigenous people of the hemisphere, and here in our festival that’s what we do as well. Directors came from 10 countries in the Americas and brought indigenous points of view that are sometimes not too available to us who live in the U.S., but which are very pointed; and everybody was connecting,” Weatherford said.

Even though the festival ended, it’s never over for the center’s staff.

“It’s an event that has embedded in itself all the seeds for a big flowering garden to continue for years afterwards, and what we do through the festival is learn a great deal about the direction we’re going to be taking for the next two or three years until the next one happens,” Weatherford said.

Until then, information about the festival, other festivals, Native media and resources is available at www.nativenetworks.si.edu.