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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

As part of the Native American Heritage Month celebration, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is bringing the annual Native Cinema Showcase to online audiences Nov. 12–18, making them available to everyone.

Focusing on language, healing, building community, and a continued relationship with the land, the films reveal a strong thread of activism at the heart of the stories. It is a unique forum for engagement with Native filmmakers from Indigenous communities throughout the Western Hemisphere and the Arctic.

All but four of the feature films will be available to watch worldwide, said Cindy Benitez, the program manager who curates and runs the showcase. She also hosts the film and conversation series and curates international film showcases.

“Some highlights for this year are women at the forefront of Native film,” said Benitez, a Paraguayan-American who is a non-Native, in an email to Indian Country Today.

The program includes 47 films, including seven features and 40 shorts, with 28 of those by women, she said. The films represent 39 Native nations in 13 countries: the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Sweden, Greenland, and the Solomon Islands.

In addition to the films, the showcase includes a series of pre-recorded panel discussions with Native filmmakers and writers about various aspects of Indigenous storytelling.

The film, "Waikiki," is among the featured films at the National Museum of the American Indian's Native Cinema Showcase, which will be available worldwide from Nov. 12-18, 2021. The film is directed by Christopher Kahunahana, and is the first narrative, feature-length film written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker. (Photo courtesy of the Waikiki film)

One of the must-see films, Benitez said, is “Beans,” which she describes as a “powerful coming-of-age story set in true events" in the Oka Crisis in Canada in 1990. Directed by Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer, the film is both “riveting and stirring,” she said, as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl.

She also recommends the “funny and engaging” film, “Run Woman Run,” by Heiltsuk/Mohawk director Zoe Hopkins. It follows “a single mother’s journey to face her past and get healthy by running a marathon.”

Another film causing buzz is from Hawaii, the dramatic feature, “Waikiki,” directed by Christopher Kahunahana. It is the first narrative, feature-length film written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker, she said..

“Actress Danielle Zalopany gives a commanding performance as Kea,” Benitez said.

The short programs provide a cross-section of works.

“The Native Cinema Showcase shorts program all are incredibly diverse and come from Indigenous communities across the Western Hemisphere,” she said. “We have a great mix of music videos, strong Native-led protagonists, animation, poetry, and Indigenous-language-based short films.”

The comedy-drama film, "Run Woman Run," by Heiltsuk/Mohawk director Zoe Hopkins, is among the featured films at the National Museum of the American Indian's Native Cinema Showcase from Nov. 12-18, 2021. The film describes a single mother's journey to face her path and get healthy by running a marathon. (Photo courtesy of Running Home Productions)
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The showcase also includes a strong lineup from Latin America and the Pacifica, she said, including, “Snake's Mouth,” (Boca de Culebra) from Mexico and the U.S.; “Kapaemahu,” from Hawaii; and “Between Two Lines,” from Australia.

Panel discussions hit a variety of topics as well.

The “Different Lens” panel celebrates how women and two-spirited people tell Indigenous stories through their own lens. The panel discussion focuses on the new films that tell these stories, how they came to be made, and the struggles filmmakers encountered and overcame.

The Showcase Filmmaker Panel features Native filmmakers and writers discussing their experiences with Indigenous storytelling.

The museum receives hundreds of films each year through research, film festivals and submissions, she said.

“The National Museum of the American Indian’s programming team chooses films that fit within the museum’s mission of equity and social justice,” she said. “We want to ensure we highlight the creative work of Indigenous filmmakers and offer audiences an insight into the life and contemporary issues of Indigenous communities throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

Benitez has seen the rise in popularity and interest in Native film over the years.

“There has always been an interest throughout the years of Native Cinema Showcase of Native films and stories,” Benitiez said, “but never has (it) steadily remained in the mainstream until the disparity of diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry began to be looked at more closely.”

Hashtags such as #OscarsSoWhite, #BlackLivesMatter and #wearenotyourmascots took hold and a movement began to break those barriers of underrepresentation for all people of color.

Native writers, producers and filmmakers began to gain notice, including Taika Waititi, the first person of Maori descent to win an Oscar; Sierra Ornelas Teller, co-creator, executive producer, and writer of Peacock's “Rutherford Falls”; and Sterlin Harjo, producer and writer of “Reservation Dogs.”

“The support of Indigenous storytelling continues to rise and hopefully this is just the beginning,” she said.

Native Cinema Showcase

  • 7 features and 40 shorts
  • 13 countries represented: USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Brazil, Sweden, Greenland, and Solomon Islands
  • 28 out of 47 films are directed, co-directed or produced by women
  • About 20 Indigenous languages spoken in the films
  • 2 features and 8 shorts from Latin America representing Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Chile and Brazil. Features: “The Song of the Butterflies” (El Canto de las Mariposas) and “What Happened to the Bees?” (¿Qué les pasó a las Abejas?)
  • 2 features and 11 shorts from Canada: “Beans” and “Run Woman Run”
  • Asian Pacific Islander films that include one feature and nine shorts representing Hawai’i, New Zealand, Australia, and Solomon Islands. Feature: “Waikiki”
  • 39 tribes represented

For more info
The full schedule, including information about geographic restrictions, is available at the National Museum of the American Indian website.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the film, "Mouth of the Snake," is from Mexico and the United States, and that Cindy Benitez is a Paraguayan-American. Those details were incorrect in an earlier version of the story.

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