Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

If you are Indigenous, there are already a load of reasons to be excited for this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

As many might imagine, this year’s Sundance is under a bit more constraint due to the COVID-19 restrictions in place across the world. Even with restrictions in place, the festival opened officially on Jan. 28, and film-enthusiasts, film critics, and journalists have already been able to access a plethora of films, documentaries, and film shorts programs.

Make sure to follow the #NativeNerd column for reviews of a wide array of films Sundance has to offer.

The expansive Native inclusion at Sundance 2021

Four Indigenous-made films premiering in 2021

Institute founder and president Robert Redford’s original vision for the nonprofit organization and festival has been to commit to “supporting Indigenous artists throughout the Institute’s history. This has established a rich legacy of work and has supported more than 350 filmmakers through labs, grants, mentorships, public programs, and the platform of the Sundance Film Festival. The Institute’s Indigenous Program has a global focus and through its work strengthens Indigenous Cinema.”

Four Indigenous-made films this year include filmmakers from Canada, New Zealand and the United States. One filmmaker, Alisi Telengut, is Indigenous Mongolian.

There are other films and film shorts that have an Indigenous influence with filmmakers from such places as Brazil and Mexico that will be covered in upcoming #NativeNerd review articles.

Four Indigenous-made films this year are as follows (descriptions come directly from Sundance):

The Fourfold
Director/Screenwriter: Alisi Telengut, Mongolian
Short Animation Spotlight

The Fourfold

An exploration of the Indigenous worldview and wisdom based on ancient shamanistic traditions and animistic beliefs in Siberia and Mongolia. With handcrafted animation, a testament of reclaiming animism for environmental ethics and nonhuman materialities.

This Is the Way We Rise
Director: Ciara Lacy, Native Hawaiian
Documentary Shorts Program 1

This is the way we rise (Courtesy Sundance)

An exploration into the creative process, following Native Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, as her art is reinvigorated by her calling to protect sacred sites atop Maunakea, Hawai’i.

Wild Indian
Director/Screenwriter: Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians
Starring: Michael Greyeyes, First Nations Cree
U.S. Dramatic Competition Feature

Michael Greyeyes

Makwa, a young Anishinaabe boy, has a rough life. He often appears at school with bruises he says he got falling down, but no one believes him. He and his only friend, Ted-O, like to escape by playing in the woods, until the day Makwa shockingly murders a schoolmate. After covering up the crime, the two boys go on to live very different lives. Now, as adult men, they must face the truth of what they have done and what they have become. In his feature debut, writer-director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Shinaab and Shinaab, Part II, 2017 and 2019 Sundance Film Festivals) tells a story that spans centuries and the continent in a film destined to be a touchstone in Indigenous cinema. Leading an impressive cast, Michael Greyeyes delivers a gripping, enigmatic performance as a modern Native American man who has done terrible, unforgivable things. With a strong and compelling visual style that evokes both fascination and dread, Wild Indian considers the cost of survival in a world as cruel as our own.

Coming Home in the Dark
Director: James Ashcroft, Ngā Puhi/Ngāti Kahu/English
Midnight Feature

Coming Home in the Dark (Courtesy Sundance)

Winding down a desolate road through an endless valley, Alan and Jill stop their car to take their teenage boys on a hike through the New Zealand wilderness. As they rest for a picnic at a clearing overlooking the water, two ominous-looking drifters appear out of nowhere, silently surrounding the peaceful clan and radiating a threat of imminent danger. With a swift act of violence, these men take the family by force, a seemingly random decision that sets them all on a maddening collision course with the ghosts of their pasts—from which there is no escape. With its menacing performances and calibrated stakes, director James Ashcroft’s ruthless crime thriller careens into an unhinged road trip that leaves the viewer breathless through every piercing curve. Ashcroft pulls absolutely no punches in his feature debut, an astonishingly lean and relentlessly paced descent into the heart of brutality, building tension from a single speck to an avalanche with uncommon precision. Contains extreme violence and gore.

The Native Forum Celebration

This Friday, Sundance honored the Indigenous fellows, grantees and alumni of the Indigenous Program. They also announced their 2021 Merata Mita Fellow honoring the late Māori filmmaker Merata Mita.

N. Bird Runningwater, Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache, opened this year’s Native Forum celebration with a land acknowledgment to the Ute Nation. The Red Bird Singers opened the event with an honor song.

Keri Putnum also began the event and expressed the desire for Robert Redford to continuously give a voice to Native creators. She also thanked Runningwater for cultivating the Native voice that has been in the world of Sundance.

During the Indigenous program, Runningwater talked about several efforts including:

  • The “In the Center Series” and the #WarriorUp campaign
  • Their blog series in the Indigenous program 
  • Sundance Indigenous shorts available at Mubi

Indigenous Program Associate Director Adam Piron, Mohawk and Kiowa, followed with an announcement of the Merata Mita recipient, who is Sami filmmaker Marja Bål Nango.

Marja Bål Nango, Sámi
Merata Mita Fellowship

Marja Bål Nango is a film director, screenwriter and producer. She has studied directing at

Nordland College of Art and Film and producing at a collaborative program between International Sámi Film Institute and Sámi University. She wrote, directed and produced the short film "Hilbes biigá," which has screened at nearly 30 film festivals, and won the UR Award for Best Film at the Uppsala Int Film Festival, and the Skårungen-award at Tromsø International Film Festival. Her latest short film, “The Tongues,” follows a woman’s psychological aftermath as she fights for spiritual survival after being raped in a snowstorm on a mountain. The film has been a success worldwide, winning four awards, three of them at Oscar® Qualifying Film Festivals. Marja and co-writer Ingir Bål are now developing their first feature film together, “I love my Reindeerherder.”

MM Sami

Indigenous Fellows for Sundance 2021

Indigenous inclusion has been one of the foundational themes of the organization since its beginning. The organization has an Indigenous program and every year, Sundance names Indigenous fellows to support the artists seeking to make a name for themselves in the world of film.

This year’s Indigenous fellows, whose working film projects and development are being supported by Sundance, are as follows (descriptions come directly from Sundance):

Amanda Strong, Métis/Michif
Native Filmmaker Lab Fellow

Amanda Strong

Amanda Strong is a Michif (Métis, Cree, Chippewa, Assiniboine, European and Polish Ancestry) interdisciplinary artist with a focus on filmmaking, stop motion animations and media art. She is currently living and working on unceded Coast Salish territories of the Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), səl̓ílwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations. Strong received a BAA in Interpretative Illustration and a Diploma in Applied Photography from the Sheridan Institute. With a cross-discipline focus, common themes of her work are reclamation of Indigenous stories, lineage, language, and culture. Strong is the Owner/Director/Producer of Spotted Fawn Productions Inc. (SFP). Under her direction, SFP utilizes a multi-layered approach and unconventional methods that are centered in collaboration on all aspects of their work. Strong’s work is fiercely process-driven and takes form in various mediums such as stop-motion, 2D/3D animation, Virtual Reality, gallery/museum installations, published books, and community-activated projects. She was selected by renowned filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin to win the Clyde Gilmour Technicolour Award. In 2017 she won the Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Mid Career Artists award, the Vancouver Mayor’s Arts Award for Emerging Film and Media Artist in 2016, and in 2013, Amanda was the recipient of K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Film and Video. Her films have screened across the globe. Fellowship for Indigenous Canadian film artist made possible with support from the Indigenous Screen Office.

Keanu Jones, Navajo
Native Filmmaker Lab Fellow

Keanu Jones Dine' Native Filmmaker Lab Fellow (Courtesy Sundance)

Keanu Jones is Mexican Clan born for Big Water Clan and is from Grand Falls, Arizona. He is a member of the Navajo Nation. Surrounded by family and the way of living on the Navajo Nation, his artistic identity has been greatly informed by his upbringing. This will continue to be reflected in the narratives he wants to explore. In 2015, he was recognized with 15 other young filmmakers at the Student White House Film Festival. Then in 2018, he was recognized for his short film at the Navajo Film Festival. Keanu graduated from Navajo Technical University with a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing and New Media.

Rob Fatal, Mestiza/o/x, Ute, Rarámuri, Pueblo
Native Filmmaker Lab Fellow

Rob Fatal Mestiza, Ute, Rarámuri, Pueblo; Native Filmmaker Lab Fellow (Courtesy Sundance)

Rob Fatal [they/them] is a Two Spirit Mestiza/o/x filmmaker, new media artist and storyteller exploring decolonial aesthetics. Working in multiple analog and digital mediums allows Fatal to reimagine their own multi-lineage indigenous storytelling tradition for our current time which Fatal refers to as the “Indigenous post-apocalypse”. Fatal is often drawn to mediums such as filmmaking and performance which bring together community and people to achieve a desired vision or work. Fatal finds community and culture to be their greatest artistic inspiration. To create with the collective minds of unique individuals is a practice that brings to them a great spiritual catharsis; a feeling of joy and power tied to the realization of what people working together can accomplish when in harmony: a home, a shared reality, justice and healing. Fatal’s work has been screened internationally at the British Film Institute Flare Festival, Fringe! Queer Film & Art Festival in London, Vancouver Antimatter Media Arts Festival, Frameline SF LGBTQ Film Festival, Outsider Fest Austin, Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and the Broad Museum. Fatal’s films are distributed by Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Center.

Cole Forrest, Nipissing First Nation
Artist in Residence

Cole Forrest, Nipissing First Nation; Artist in Residence (Courtesy Sundance)

Cole Forrest is an Ojibwe artist based in Toronto, Ontario. Originally from Nipissing First Nation, he strives for compassion and acceptance within the arts. Cole trained and honed his craft at the “Big Medicine Studio” while working with the group Aanmitaagzi and has written, directed, and acted in various student/independent short films, theatre pieces, and a musical. Cole’s films have been screened at various film festivals including ImagineNATIVE and Toronto Queer Film Festival, and he is a recipient of the Ken and Ann Watts Memorial Scholarship and of the James Bartleman Indigenous Youth Creative Writing Award. Cole is the 2019 recipient of the ImagineNATIVE + LIFT Film Mentorship, and a graduate of the Video Design and Production program at George Brown College, and is currently a Grants Assistant at the Toronto Arts Council. He is grateful to represent his community in all of his artistic pursuits. Residency for Indigenous Canadian film artist made possible with support from the Indigenous Screen Office.

Petyr Xyst, Laguna Pueblo
Artist in Residence

Petyr Xyst, Laguna Pueblo; Artist in Residence

Peter Xyst is an Emmy-nominated American human from Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose work focuses on themes of class, institutional failures and the people who cope with them, and the strangeness of coming of age in the 21st century. His work spans genres and formats, exploring comedy, drama, and experimental forms in short films, music videos, and new media. He’s been featured at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth, NATAS NW, AAHSFF, on PBS, and others. In his quarantine time, he likes to read nonfiction and stare at the wall for an indefinite period. He’s also a Sundance Institute Full Circle alum and a third-year student at the University of New Mexico.

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Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor of Indian Country Today who enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. Email: vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com he is also the opinions’ editor, opinion@indincountrytoday.com.

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