Skip to main content

Vincent Schilling

Indian Country Today

Sundance 2021 got into full swing this week and started on Jan 28. The Sundance Film Festival will be running until February 3.

As the #NativeNerd film critic with an ample amount of reviews during the past two years, I am thrilled that due to this year’s Sundance film shorts programs, I now get to add another fifty film notches into my gunslinger belt.

The short film programs were immediately available upon the start of the festival, and I wasted no time diving in.

Here’s a sincere nod of thanks to Sundance because every program, as well as the grand opening of the festival, began with a land acknowledgment to the Ute tribe as well as to all Indigenous people.

The short film programs

The Sundance Film Festival had seven short film programs, including animation, documentary shorts, and film shorts. Each of the programs had an average of eight films and each program was a bit under three hours. At the end of each program was also a Q&A section with the filmmakers.

According to the program facilitators at the beginning of each program, the Sundance folks receive thousands of submissions each year, and they selected fifty to play in 2021 after I am sure what was a fairly rigorous process.

There is one thing I did want to note, many of the short films made one thing clear to me as a film watcher. Life does not always have a resolution. Some of these films had no resolution. There was no happily ever after sentiment. And, isn’t that life? I realized a bit more and more that I have been a bit spoiled as a film viewer growing up with films in the United States.

It is a presupposition of attitude that I look forward to dismantling moving forward as a film critic.

Though I am submitting my short film selections here, stay tuned for my selections and reviews on feature films in the next few days.

My #NativeNerd Top 10 favorites for short films at Sundance 2021

(The selections are in no particular order)


14 mins.

Bambirak (Courtesy Sundance)

When Kati stows away in her father's truck, Faruk must juggle his responsibilities as a single dad while holding down his first job in a new country. As their relationship deepens, a brush with covert racism tests their bond.

I was mesmerized by the simplicity of interactions between a father and his daughter who haphazardly ends up following him on his delivery job route. But the true resonance of the film comes with an incident of racism. I felt this film in my bones, heart, and soul. A beautiful piece of work by Zamarin Wahdat, the director, who was born in Afghanistan.

Dear Philadelphia

28 mins.

Dear Philadelphia (Courtesy Sundance)

With the help of their family, friends, and faith, three fathers unravel the incomparable partnership of forgiveness and community in North Philadelphia.

This was one of my favorites of the festival so far. It was beautifully-filmed and showcased portrait after portrait of people living in some of the tougher locations of North Philadelphia. From street riders on a plethora of vehicles flipping wheelies and doing donuts, to sidewalk barbers, and life coaches. Instead of showcasing struggle in a dark way, it highlights the beauty of family and modern cultures on the streets. Directed by Renee Maria Osubu.

The Field Trip

13 mins.

The Field Trip (Courtesy Sundance)

A group of fifth-graders learns what it takes to get ahead in the modern American workplace.

When a group of school students starts a day in a fabricated business world, how long until they start to act like adults? This question was answered with a full blast of clarity in filmmaker Meghan O’Hara, Mike Attie, and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck’s “The Field Trip.” This short doc literally blew my mind as I watched young kids mirror the lives of the adult business world in a matter of minutes. From invoice transactions, to “Can I help the next person,” and more. A must-watch, but be prepared to see a parody of your own life.

This is the Way We Rise

12 mins.

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 Mauna Kea, Hawai'i.

An emotional journey. “This is the Way We Rise,” by director Ciara Lacy, is a beautiful and courageous exploration into the life of a gay Native Hawaiian slam poet Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio. The film also explores the land protectors of Mauna Kea, as well as dives into the personal thoughts and emotions of Osorio. Tears continued to flow for me as I watched Osorio continue to find new ways to express her life’s passions, and lay in the road for Mauna Kea and her familial ancestors. One epic moment resonated with me as an elder shouted at the Hawaiian police officers for ignoring their roots, and another where Osorio was asked to recite a poem on the spot. Directed by Native Hawaiian filmmaker Ciara Lacy.


21 mins.

Lata (Courtesy Sundance)

Lata, a 23-year-old domestic worker, navigates her way through an upper-class home in South Mumbai. Doors consistently open and close, giving Lata selective access to the various contending realities that occupy this space.

Director Alisha Tejpal was quick to disclose she came from a place of privilege in the director’s Q&A during this short film program. In this film, the director’s respect for Lata, to me seems obvious. It is a subtle, quiet, and gentle film that takes its time in exploring the daily life of India’s working class contributions. I was fixated on the absence of movement from the camera, which failed to follow some of its characters off the screen, should they move from view. There was no great conflict, no great wins or losses, just the enjoyment of a moment a simple as borrowing a few tomatoes. I was mesmerized by its straightforward story. I was appreciative of its genuine honesty. A film completely immersed in its own subtle art form. It’s as if I was allowed to rest and enjoy the journey, to meditate on the life of someone else besides myself.


18 mins.

Lizard (Courtesy Sundance)

Juwon, an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger, gets ejected from Sunday school service. She unwittingly witnesses the underbelly in and around a megachurch in Lagos.

A young girl in Lagos, Nigeria gets kicked out of a Sunday school class and sees a lizard, its colorful head looking at her before it scurries off. She follows and thus begins an adventure, created by filmmaker Akinola Davies Jr. Her journey is filled with a multitude of conflicting imagery and ideas, most of all what stuck out to me was the light-skinned images of Jesus in contrast to the dark brown faces of the people in the film. The lizard plays a key role in the film as it travels along an eventful day, ending in dangerous circumstances.

The Rifleman

19 mins.

The Rifleman (Courtesy Sundance)

Told entirely through archival material tracing Harlon Carter, considered the “father of the modern NRA,” across the decades, this short film reveals the links between the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Border Patrol, and gun culture.

This is a jaw-dropping “aha moment” short documentary that left me wanting to discover more. Created by director Sierra Pettengill, an archival director who hails from Brooklyn, who also directed the feature film “The Reagan Show.” If you want to learn more about the beginnings of the NRA, the connections to civil rights, the Black Panthers, and much more, give this documentary short a whirl. An excellent work by Pettengill.


12 mins.

Snowy (Courtesy Sundance)

Snowy, a four-inch-long pet turtle, has lived an isolated life in the family basement. With help from a team of experts and his caretaker, Uncle Larry, we ask: Can Snowy be happy, and what would it take?

Though “Snowy” was filmed with a lighthearted perspective, I traveled a wide range of emotions during this short film by Kaitlyn Schwalje and Alex Wolf Lewis. Snowy the turtle has been relegated to the basement by a son in the family who never really gave his pet much thought. But after discussions with a turtle scientist and other experts, Snowy is given a chance to literally and figuratively “emerge from his shell.” It is a quirky, offbeat, and funny film, with some uplifting results to the filmmaker’s efforts to help the life of this little turtle.

You Wouldn’t Understand

10 mins.

You Wouldnt Understand (Courtesy Sundance)

An idyllic picnic of one is upended after the arrival of a stranger.

This film short is in one word: hilarious. I was clueless the whole way through of what was going on, but that therein lies its beauty. It just so happens one of the actors was a dead ringer for an old Army buddy, but that was just a fun side note for me. But I genuinely loved this short filmand look forward to discovering more from the director Trish Harnetiaux.


9 mins.

KKUM (Courtesy Sundance)

My mother's dreams have always been strong premonitions for important moments in my life. I rely on her dreams more than any religion.

The sole animation film selection I made among the shorts is “KKUM,” an endearing film that took me on a much deeper journey than I was expecting. Director Kang-min Kim, who was born in Incheon, South Korea, did a great job of not only telling a story with animated foam, including styrofoam and a myriad of other white-colored objects, but Kim delivered an incredible backstory based on how his life’s actions are guided every day by his mother.

Native Nerd Phone

Vincent Schilling, Akwesasne Mohawk, is associate editor at Indian Country Today. He enjoys creating media, technology, computers, comics, and movies. He is a film critic and writes the #NativeNerd column. Twitter @VinceSchilling. TikTok @VinceSchilling. Email:

Indian Country Today is a nonprofit news organization. Will you support our work? All of our content is free. There are no subscriptions or costs. And we have hired more Native journalists in the past year than any news organization ─ and with your help, we will continue to grow and create career paths for our people. Support Indian Country Today for as little as $10.