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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

An Indigenous-directed film, “The Headhunter’s Daughter,” won a grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival, impressing jurors with its “poetic and dream-like” story of a woman who leaves home to pursue a career as a country singer.

The film, directed and written by Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan of the Philippines, was awarded the Short Film Grand Jury Prize. It was among nine films by Indigenous filmmakers selected for the acclaimed festival this year.

Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan, of Ifugao and Visayan descent, is director and writer of "The Headhunter's Daughter," which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Navajo filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe, a previous Sundance winner who helped select this year’s short film winner, said jurors were impressed with Eblahan’s work.

"We were entranced by this poetic and dream-like film, which follows its character’s intimate journey with gorgeous cinematography and direction and acting, capturing a unique sense of place,” Lowe said in a statement released by Sundance.

Eblahan is from the Ífugão tribe and of Visayan descent.

“It was important for us to make this film with the community that we have in our hometown,” Eblahan said in a “Meet the Artist” video produced by Sundance.

Two other films with Indigenous themes but non-Indigenous directors also won grand jury prizes at the festival, which was held virtually this year instead of the star-studded event usually held in Park City, Utah.

The film, “Utama,” which won the World Cinema Dramatic category, follows the struggles of a Quechua couple from Bolivia as they struggle to survive in their arid region. It was written and directed by Alejandro Loayza Grisi, a still photographer and documentary cinematographer in Bolivia.

A Brazilian film, “The Territory,” won in the World Cinema Documentary category with a story about the Uru-eu-wau-wau Indigenous people in Brazil, who are fighting to protect their ancestral lands. The film was the first feature film by cinematographer Alex Pritz, and was produced with the help of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Related story:
Sundance puts spotlight on Indigenous films

Adam Piron, Kiowa and Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk), the interim director at the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, told Indian Country Today that Indigenous voices have long played an important role at the festival.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on, not only in the Indigenous Program at Sundance but also within a lot of the programming for the festival – really strong voices from Indigenous communities,” he said. “These are stories that you’re not going to hear anywhere else. I think they’re highlighting a lot of artists who are on the rise.”

Indigenous showcase

The Sundance Festival this year featured nine new, Indigenous-made productions — one feature-length film, five short films and three New Frontier exhibition pieces, which included virtual reality and other elements.

Eblahan’s film, “The Headhunter’s Daughter,” follows a young woman named Lynn who leaves her family and small village behind to pursue country music. She travels the Cordilleran highlands on horseback to make it to a TV show audition in the city of Baguio.

“We see her traverse the post-colonial world and see that through the eyes and perspective of an Indigenous person in the Philippines,” Eblahan said in the Sundance interview.

The only Indigenous-made feature film screened at the festival this year, “Every Day in Kaimukī,” was directed and co-written by Alika Tengan, Kānaka Maoli. It’s about a young Hawaiian man who grapples with uprooting his life and following his girlfriend to New York City.

Alika Maikau Tengan, Kānaka Maoli (Hawaiian and Japanese), is director of the feature-length film, "Every Day in Kaimukī," an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The other Indigenous-made short films featured this year included “What They’ve Been Taught,” a film that explores reciprocal relations in the Cherokee world, by director Brit Hansel, Cherokee Nation; “‘Long Line of Ladies,” about a Karuk girl preparing for what was once a dormant coming-of-age ceremony, directed by Shaandiin Tome, Diné, whose film “Mud” premiered at the Sundance Festival in 2018; “Kicking the Clouds,” an experimental documentary centered on a Pechanga language lesson, directed by Sky Hopinka, Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians; and “La Baláhna/Maidenhood,” which follows a girl submitting to a traditional test of purity, directed by Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza, who is Binniza' from Mexico.

In the New Frontier Exhibition, viewers could navigate the space using virtual reality.

The three New Frontier productions screened at the festival included “This is Not a Ceremony,” an immersive experience by lead artist Colvin Van Loon, who Blackfoot and Dutch from The Piikani Nation, which helps viewers transcend time to understand the experiences of Indigenous men; “Atua,” an augmented reality production that reimagines the realm of Pacific gods, by lead artists Tanu Gago and Jermaine Dean; and “On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World),” a virtual reality production that allows audiences to experience the alarming events in Hawai’i in 2018 when a false alert went out about a potential missile attack, with lead artists that include Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, a Kanaka Maoli wahine artist, activist, scholar, educator, and storyteller.

The Sundance Film Festival also hosted a climate storytelling panel discussion this year where filmmaker Layel Camargo, Yaqui and Mayo, was a featured speaker.

Sundance success stories

The festival also paid homage to some of its previous years’ selections, with a handful of Indigenous-made film selections from the past screened again to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the festival.

The “From The Collection” line-up of 40 short films included Lowe’s 2010 selection, “Shimásání,” and 2004 selection, “Two Cars, One Night,” by Taika Waititi, a New Zealand filmmaker, writer and comedian who is of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent.

Sterlin Harjo attends the Los Angeles premier of "Reservation Dogs" at NeueHouse on Aug. 5, 2021. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Waititi and acclaimed director Sterlin Harjo, a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, have had several films screened at the Sundance Festivals over the years. Harjo has directed several films and the FX series, “Reservation Dogs.”

“We’re really proud of not only our alumni but also what our program does, too, not only in the U.S. but internationally as well,” Piron said.

Natives have been involved with Sundance from the beginning. It started with Larry Littlebird, Laguna and Kewa Pueblos, and Chris Spotted Eagle, Houma Nation, being involved in the first meetings that founded the Sundance Institute.

Piron said the former director of the Indigenous Program, Bird Runningwater, Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache, took the involvement to another level.

“We wanted to create a space for Indigenous voices working in film,” Piron said. “He was really able to supercharge the program … Under his vision, our program has really gone to a new height that wasn’t there before.”

Runningwater spent 20 years at Sundance Institute, where he helped launch the Native Filmmakers Lab to cultivate the next generation of storytellers. He announced last year that he was joining Amazon Studios, where he’ll help develop and produce television and film projects for streamers.

Next generation

The festival concluded with a look ahead to the future.

Officials announced at the Sundance Native Forum Celebration that Fox Maxy, Payómkawichum and Kumeyaay, had been chosen as the next recipient of the 2022 Merata Mita fellowship for the Native Filmmakers Lab.

The fellowship is named after the late filmmaker Merata Mita who was the first Māori woman to write and direct a full-length feature film. The cash grant is meant to support Indigenous women who are striving to direct a feature film.

“I’m very excited for the future,” Maxy said at the forum. “I’m very grateful for all the people I’ve met along the way.”

The Cherokee Nation also announced at the Native Forum that leaders were committing up to $1 million in rebates for projects within the Cherokee Nation. He called it a powerful economic development tool for the tribe.

“I’m excited at the prospect of bringing more productions to our reservation. More opportunities for our people to go to work. More opportunities to develop relationships,” Chief Chuck Hoskins Jr. said in making the announcement. .

“What’s particularly exciting to me is this creates even more opportunities for Indigenous storytellers to tell their stories,” Hoskins said. “We need more of that.”

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