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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

For Cherokee filmmaker Brit Hensel, the Sundance Film Festival is a chance to showcase not just a groundbreaking film but also her people.

Her film, “ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (Udeyonv),” or “What They’ve Been Taught,” which premieres Thursday, Jan. 20, at 9 a.m. MST, explores reciprocity among the Cherokee people as told through an elder.

The film features not just a Cherokee director but an all-Cherokee film crew.

“Filmmaking for me has always carried with it an element of responsibility — a responsibility to whose story I'm sharing, to my community, my collaborators, to myself and my vision,” Hensel, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told Indian Country Today.

“There is power in pointing a camera at someone and shaping a story,” she said. “It's something I don't take for granted. I think being a good Cherokee means knowing your place within the large whole and taking care of those around you. I try my best to do that when I'm creating, that way my work will serve its intended purpose.”

Hensel is among nine Indigenous filmmakers featured at this year's acclaimed Sundance Film Festival, telling stories of traditions, ambitions and aspirations in short and feature-length films and multimedia productions. The festival runs Jan. 20-30 in Park City, Utah, but will not feature in-person events this year because of the pandemic.

A film poster illustrates the short documentary, "Long Line of Ladies," by Shaandiin Tome, Dine', and Rayka Zehtabchi. The film is an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

The program includes dramatic and documentary features and short films, series and episodic content, and New Frontier productions, showcasing emerging media in the form of multimedia installations, performances, and films, according to the Sundance website. Overall, more than 100 films and special productions will be showcased at the festival.

The Sundance Institute has a long history of supporting Native film through its Indigenous program, which offers three fellowships to burgeoning filmmakers, officials said. The institute has included more than 110 Indigenous filmmakers and more than 90 tribes over the years. 

"This is a very strong year for Indigenous-made work at Sundance,” Adam Piron, associate director of the Indigenous program, told Indian Country Today.

“Among the 14,849 submissions our programming team received, we selected six films including one feature film and five short films, as well as three pieces for our New Frontier section,” Piron said.

“It's a testament to not only the diversity the tribal affiliations represented in this year's line-up, but also to the breadth of moving image formats that Indigenous artists are flourishing in. I'm thrilled that our Indigenous audiences will get to experience these.” 

Sundance also has issued a land acknowledgement for several years to the Ute Tribal Nation as the ancestral keepers of the land where the festival is held. Many of the Indigenous filmmakers featured this year also acknowledged the keepers of the lands where their films were made.

Hensel’s work is one of the five short films, joining a feature-length film, “Every Day in Kaimukī,,” by director Alika Tengan, who is Japanese and Hawai'ian. The festival also features the New Frontier program, which includes three Indigenous works.

Among the New Frontier entries is “This Is Not a Ceremony,” by director Ahnahktsipiitaa, also known as Colin Van Loon. It’s not a film, said Katja De Bock, Van Loon’s publicist at the National Film Board of Canada.

“It is what we call a ‘cinematic VR experience’ - an interactive 360-degree documentary that can only be seen in a virtual reality headset (an Oculus Quest 1 or 2, in this case),” De Bock said.

During the Sundance Film Festival, audiences worldwide can experience the work online on the digital platform, “The Spaceship,” De Bock said. After Sundance, audiences can visit the film’s website.

One other production in this year's lineup, "Chiqui," addresses Indigenous themes. It comes from award-winning Colombian-American director and cinematographer Carlos Cardona, who is not Native. 

Most of the Indigenous filmmakers featured at Sundance shared their thoughts with Indian Country Today about their works.

‘Every Day In Kaimukī’ 
Alika Maikau Tengan

Alika Tengan, a Hapa Hawai’ian and Asian filmmaker based in Honolulu, directed and co-wrote the feature-length film, “Every Day in Kaimukī,” about a young man who decides to try to give his life meaning by leaving the small Hawai’ian town where he grew up.

Tengan said he is particularly proud that the film features mostly Asian/Hawai’ian faces, which is representative of the more than 50 percent Asian population on the islands.

“The Asiatic influences are interwoven into the fabric of the last century here, and Asians have interbred with Native Hawaiians for so long,” he told Indian Country Today. He and the lead actor/co-screenwriter Naz Kawakami are Japanese and Hawai'ian.

Naz Kawakami appears in the feature-length film, "Every Day in Kaimukī," by Alika Maikau Tengan, who is Hawaiian and Japanese. The film is an official selection for the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Hawai'ian values are so rooted in community, and truly everything I’ve done so far has been with the support of the local filmmaking community,” he said. “Hawai’i is the audience I’m trying to serve first and foremost, which is why I still live here and have never left. I feel that if I’m going to be telling the stories about this place, I feel a tremendous kuleana (responsibility) to do so as accurately and compassionately as possible, and that means being around the lāhui as much as I can.”

He wants the audience to understand “the intricacies and nuances of navigating life” in 2021, and why Hawai’ians would leave the state.

“The reasons are often complex and multifold, and I hope to broaden peoples’ conception of what it means to live, love, and want to leave here,” he said. “I want to give people a broader conception of the way that Native Hawai’ians look, and how the local Asian community looks and feels different than other Asian enclaves around the world.”

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)

Tengan earned a mentorship in 2017 under Joe Robert Cole, co-writer of the movie, “Black Panther.” Cole oversaw the development of what would become Tengan’s short film, “Mauka To Makai,” (2018) which was awarded Best Made In Hawai’i Short at the Hawai’i International Film Festival.

Tengan followed up with the “Moloka’i Bound,” which premiered at ImagineNative in 2019 and won the award for “Best Short Work,” granting it Oscar consideration for the 2021 Academy Awards. In December, the feature-length script for “Moloka’i Bound" was selected for the inaugural Indigenous Black List, and was also selected for Gotham Week 2021.

The film was produced by Jesy Odio, Chapin Hall, Tengan and Kawakami.

Sundance Institute Meet the Artist: Alika Maikau Tengan

‘ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (Udeyonv)' ('What They’ve Been Taught')
Brit Hensel 

Hensel is an Oklahoma-based writer and award-winning filmmaker whose work focuses on Indigenous storytelling and environmental justice.

She worked on the first season of the FX series, "Reservation Dogs," and has worked for “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People,” a television program.

She worked with the Nia Tero organization’s Reciprocity Project for her latest film, “ᎤᏕᏲᏅ” (Udeyonv) (pronounced oo-de-yo-NUH), which means "What They've Been Taught."

The documentary short film features storytelling by a Cherokee elder and first-language speaker.

In this still shot from the short documentary film "ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught)" by Brit Hensel, artist John Henry Gloyne shows a mask he's making to his son, Elwood. The film is an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Taylor Hensel, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Hensel’s work largely explores traditional Cherokee values, language, and her peoples’ connection to land in Oklahoma — formerly Indian Territory — and in her ancestral homelands of North Carolina, Qualla Boundary.

“This film was created in collaboration with independent artists from both Cherokee Nation and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, filmed in North Carolina and Oklahoma, ,” Nia Tero said in a trailer for the film on Vimeo.

The film was produced by Taylor Hensel, a Cherokee journalist, photographer and award-winning filmmaker who is Brit Hensel’s sister, and by Adam Mazo, Kavita Pillay and Tracy Rector. It is one of seven films from the first season of the Reciprocity Project, a co-production of Nia Tero and the Upstander Project in association with REI Co-op Studios,  that seeks to embrace the value of reciprocity through Indigenous perspectives.

“ᎤᏕᏲᏅ” circles the intersection of tradition, language, land, and a commitment to maintaining balance,” according to Nia Tero.

Filmmaker Brit Hensel is the first woman citizen of the Cherokee Nation to direct an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. Her film, "ᎤᏕᏲᏅ (What They’ve Been Taught)" is an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.  (Photo by Taylor Hensel, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Hensel hopes the audience will gain a new understanding of Indigenous culture.

“This film has a lot of layers and meanings depending on who's watching and what perspective they come with,” she said. “I've never been very interested in telling folks what to take from my films, but I do hope the audience walks away knowing that this film is a celebration of community.”

She wants to continue to use her love for storytelling to amplify the voices and values of the Cherokee people.

“This film carries the contributions of nine other Cherokees, the majority of whom are a part of a growing creative community here in Tulsa and northeastern Oklahoma,” she said.

“It's pretty inspiring to be working amongst so many talented Native artists in one place. I can't wait to see how it continues to grow.”

Previously, Hensel directed the documentary film, “Zibi Yajdan” (2019), which tells the story of the Kalamazoo River and its relationship to the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Pottawatomi people (Gun Lake Tribe) in the wake of the Enbridge Pipeline 6B oil spill. Her first film, “Native and American,” (2017), explores identity through the lens of a young Potawatomi woman as she navigates her tribe’s blood-quantum standards.

Her films have been screened both nationally and abroad, including in the Māoriland Film Festival. She was awarded NeXtGen’s 30 Under 30 and was a NeXt Doc Collective Film Fellow, according to her website.

She was recently awarded the 4th World Indigenous Media Fellowship and is a 2022 Tulsa Artist Fellow.

Sundance Institute Meet the Artist: Brit Hensel

‘La Baláhna/Maidenhood’
 Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza 

The short film, “La Baláhna/Maidenhood,” co-written and directed by Xochitl Enriquez Mendoza in Mexico, tells of a young woman who agrees to submit to traditions to prove her purity but whose “body betrays her,” according to the film’s website.

Mendoza said her Indigenous core values direct and drive her as an empowered and strength-based storyteller and filmmaker.

“I think that the culture in which we grow up and develop as children is very important for our interaction with the society that is alien to our culture,” she told Indian Country Today. “In my case, I grew up in a Zapotec culture, Binniza', as they say pre-Hispanic, and my culture is warrior, fighter, and they also take great care of women to protect them from danger, but sometimes they go too far and instead of helping, they end up hurting.”

Héctor Ortíz Valdovinos and Emma Aguilar Malacara appear in the short film, “La Baláhna/Maidenhood,” by Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

She has carried those dynamics into filmmaking, she said.

“In spite of that, my culture gave me the basis ‘to be a warrior’ and get involved in an unknown world like cinema for us and in a medium that is moved more by men than by women,” she said. “I feel that it is this root that I bring, which led me to discover new realities as cinema does.”

Mendoza, a film director, was born in El Barrio de la Soledad, Oaxaca, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. She migrated with her older sister to Puebla when she was 18, and studied film at the Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla. She later studied screenwriting at the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC) in Mexico City.

She then settled in Oaxaca and develop her debut documentary, “My Navel’s Root." She worked for two important production companies, Elite Studios MPC and Mirada Films, and produced short films by region with support from IMCINE, "Franco" (2017) and "La Baláhna”/“Maidenhood” (2021). 

Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza, who is Binniza' from Mexico, is director of the short film, “La Baláhna (Maidenhood)” an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Her latest film was made at a regional level, with people from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, she said.

“I would like the audience to leave with questions: What do we do as a society? What do we do with women? And what is our position? I would like people to see my community and us as women as something more universal, because violence against women exists worldwide,” she said.

“I hope they also become aware of what we cause with our behaviors and thoughts about virginity, our double standards. That many times men are allowed and women are not.”

Mendoza was joined in writing the project by Samuel Sánchez Tual. The film was produced by Eréndira Hernández.

Sundance Institute Meet the Artist: Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza

‘The Headhunter’s Daughter’
Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan

In the short film “The Headhunter’s Daughter,” director and screenwriter Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan explores the story of a young woman in the Philippines who leaves her family behind to pursue a life as a country singer.

Eblahan, an independent film writer and director of Ifugao and Visayan descent, explores themes of trauma, spirituality and nature through Indigenous identities.

“My tribal roots stem from my father, who is of the Ifugao indigenous group from the Cordilleras of the Luzon Island in the Philippines,” Eblahan told Indian Country Today. “Our culture is based heavily on the core values of resilience and strength in all aspects of lifestyle: from telling stories and recounting memories through song, building farming landscapes above the clouds, and fostering a deep sense of communitarian camaraderie.”

Ammin Acha-ur appears in the short film, "The Headhunter's Daughter," by Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan, which won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“These values have existed for hundreds of years, and to this day still seeps in the modernity of our post-colonial reality. These values take new shape according to how the world changes throughout time.”

He continued, “As empowering as these values are to me as a filmmaker, this is also a main question I pose to myself in this film: How can our identity and stories outlast the ever-changing world?”

The Headhunter’s Daughter” was created in the Cordilleran Administrative Region, situated in the Luzon Island of the Philippines, which is home to the Igorot population made up of Ifugao, Kalinga, Itneg, Isneg, Ibaloi, Kankanaey, and Kalanguya ethnic groups. The film was shot particularly in La Trinidad and Baguio City, Benguet, the traditional territories of the Ibaloi and Kankanaey.

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)

He said most of his work touches on his own personal identity.

“My short film, “Hilum” (2020), details a personal retelling of the death of my father, while “The Headhunter’s Daughter” is an attempt to express my yearning for reaching a deeper reconnection with my Indigenous identity as a person who had to leave my homeland,” he said. “I believe an important aspect of building my identity as a filmmaker is to express the autobiographical nature of my works as much as I express my culture or my filmmaking approach.”

He wants the audience to gain a better understanding of Indigenous people.

“I do want the audience to leave with a refreshed perspective on the cinematic portrayal of the Indigenous Filipino,” he said. “I aim for this film to show how a ‘slice of life’ approach to storytelling can also exist within the realm of our cultural narrative — not just a politicized portrayal of our identity or a warfare-infused genre film.”

He continued, “A cry for freedom from an Indigenous perspective doesn’t have to be a brutal one — it can be as simple as a girl trying to find her voice through song.”

Eblahan is known for such films as “Hilum” and “Umbilical Cord to Heaven,” and his award-winning works have been selected for various film festivals around the world, including Sundance, Cineyouth at the Chicago International Film Festival, Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival and the Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival, where he won the International Student Jury Prize as well as the Special Mention of the International Jury for “Hilum.”

Eblahan is based in La Trinidad and Chicago, where he also practices as a musician, composer and a graphic artist.

“The Headhunter’s Daughter” was made in the Philippines. The producer is Hannah Schierbeek.

Sundance Institute Meet the Artist: Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan

‘Long Line of Ladies’
Shaandiin Tome

Shaandiin Tome, Dine’, is a recognized filmmaker from Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose breakout, award-winning short film, “Mud,” (“Hashtł’ishnii”) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2018.

In “Long Line of Ladies,” a documentary short film, she tells of a girl, Ahty, and her community as they prepare for her Ihuk, a once-dormant, coming-of-age ceremony of the Karuk and Yurok tribes of northern California.

Tome’s cross-cultural experiences have allowed her to collaborate with others in capturing untold stories among the Indigenous community, both as a director and cinematographer.

“Being a Diné woman has brought me assurance in the unknown of filmmaking,” Tome told Indian Country Today. “The film industry can be fueled by money, rules, and regimented ways of storytelling. It has always been daunting, when you are trying to tackle it head on while contributing your own creativity.”

Ahty Allen appears in the short documentary, "Long Line of Ladies," by Shaandiin Tome, Dine', and Rayka Zehtabchi. The film is an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Sam Davis, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

She continued, “There are so many Indigenous filmmakers who have come before me that have tenaciously paved a path, or more a pothole-ridden dirt road, because why do we have to succumb to the ways of a concrete land-sucking highway of maintaining their artistic integrity all while shaping the industry for the future.”

Tome notes that she is neither Yurok nor Karuk, so she spent a lot of time listening in filming “Long Line of Ladies.” She wants the audience to leave the film with an understanding how young women are celebrated.

“While my tribe has something similar, the origins, meaning, songs, stories, and beliefs have nuances and differences,” she said. “The thing that made these experiences so familiar were the family and how they exist as a Native people in the modern day. As a family and group, they come together to celebrate young women who go through their coming of age ceremony.”

Shaandiin Tome, Dine', is director of the film, "Long Line of Ladies," which is an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Shaandiin Tome, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

She said the film deliberately does not include the girl’s actual ceremony, focusing instead on the preparation.

“Ceremony is such a personal process, it’s a way of thought and being, and I want audiences to be able to see how the meaning of this particular ceremony doesn’t entirely exist in being able to see it right in front of them,” she said. “It exists in this family, how they love and uplift each other, how the whole community comes together, how Ahty is a reflection of those around her and is the product of the community working assiduously for the future, and how the younger generation will be the way forward because they have the courage to do and see things in a way that has never been done.”

She also wants her films to illustrate her perspective as a Diné woman.

“I used to think there are so few Indigenous filmmakers,” she said. “Where is there a place for my voice or perspective? Scarcity mentality used to plague me, but to have people to look up to has become something invigorating, and there is a beautiful community of artists and mentors that I have to help, guide, and support me. I want to make sure I do the same for them, and also for those who come after me.”

She continued, “It has made the act of making films less individualistic, but it can be difficult to find a balance or feel like there is an industry that could exist in the future that is less conforming to ways of the past. I still struggle a lot in finding ways forward, but I think who I am as an artist is because of those who have shaped me.”

She thanked the family for sharing their preparations with her.

“In this moment I am incredibly thankful to have a platform to express myself,” she said. “But I am really so grateful to the family who has allowed us to film moments of their lives that reflect that positivity and adaptability that exists within Indigenous cultures around the world, and I hope that their light is one that can be shared.”

Tome’s work spans media and brand companies, including Alterra Mountain Company, Vox, Levi’s, Vice, PBS and National Geographic. Her narrative projects have been selected for the Sundance Creative Producer’s Fellowship 2019, Sundance Talent Forum 2020, and Sundance/OneFifty/WarnerMedia’s Indigenous Intensive Fellowship 2020. She was subsequently selected as a finalist for the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative with Spike Lee. Currently, she is a part of the 2021 Adobe Women’s Fellowship.

She has taught film editing and post-production to foreign students traveling abroad, and the New Mexico State Legislature created a joint memorial that bestowed formal recognition for her achievement in film.

“Long Line of Ladies” was directed by Tome and Rayka Zehtabchi, with producers Garrett Schiff, Pimm Tripp-Allen, Zehtabchi, Sam Davis and Dana Kurth.

Sundance Institute’s Meet the Artist: Shaandiin Tome

A still shot shows beadwork from the short documentary, "Kicking the Clouds," a look at Indigenous language and traditions by Sky Hopinka, Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians. The film is an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

'Kicking the Clouds'
Sky Hopinka

The short film, “Kicking the Clouds,” is described as an “experimental documentary” that focuses on a 50-year-old cassette tape of a Pechanga language lesson between director Sky Hopinka’s grandmother and great-grandmother. It also includes an interview with his mother.

Sky Hopinka, Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, is director of the short documentary, "Kicking the Clouds," an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Hopinka, Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, was born and raised in Ferndale, Washington, and spent a number of years in Palm Springs and Riverside, California; Portland, Oregon; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Portland, he studied and taught Chinuk Wawa, a language Indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin.

His video, photo, and text work centers around personal positions of the Indigenous homeland and landscape, designs of language and other forms of media.

He received his bachelor’s in liberal arts from Portland State University and his master’s degree in fine arts in film, video, animation and new genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He currently teaches film and electronic arts at Bard College.

Hopinka, who could not be reached for comment, was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University in 2018-2019, a Sundance Art of Nonfiction Fellow in 2019, and a recipient of an Alpert Award for film/video. He is a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow.

'On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World)'
Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio

The new media documentary, “On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World),” tells the story of a Saturday in January 2018 when Hawai’ians awoke to a warning from the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency.

“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

Fear and panic spread throughout the islands, though officials retracted the alert 38 minutes after it was issued as a false report released accidentally during training.

The production, part of Sundance's New Frontier programming, is a virtual documentary from the United Kingdom that explores the issues with lead artist and co-writer Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, a Kanaka Maoli wahine artist, activist, scholar and storyteller born and raised in Pālolo Valley.

“This is a story about a world that, despite all indications otherwise, can be changed,” Osorio told Indian Country Today. “It is a story that begins in the Pacific, but it is not just ‘our’ story, it is a story that all of us have some responsibility to face.

A still shot shows details from the virtual documentary, "On the Morning You Wake (to the End of the World)," by Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio, Mike Brett, Steve Jamison, Arnaud Colinart and Pierre Zandrowicz. The film is an official selection of the New Frontier section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“I share this story now because I have seen the way stories have the power to change the world. I share this story now because my kūpuna (elders, and ancestors), moʻopuna (future descendants), ʻāina (land), and moana (ocean) require it of me.”

“Are you listening?”

Other lead artists include Mike Brett, Steve Jamison, Arnaud Colinart and Pierre Zandrowicz, with key collaborators Jo-Jo Ellison and Bobby Krlic. The film was produced by Colinart, Ellison, Brett and Jamison.

Osorio said the reaction to the alert was profound.

“This emergency announcement was presented to a community largely aware of how our continued occupation by the United States military has resulted in our home becoming a strategic position for military violence and terror,” Osorio said.

“For Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawai'ians) and others Indigenous to Oceania, it is painfully clear that nuclearization has not happened in a vacuum, it has always been enabled by Western imperialism, colonization, militarism, and the globalization of extractive capitalism,” she said. “This matrix of violence has resulted in the ongoing displacement of our peoples from our territories, and continues to devastate the health of our people and region.”

Osorio wrote a poem as well about the incident.

“Before the first bomb’s blast and aftershock, an idea was born, as treacherous as nuclear fallout: some lands, some waters, and some peoples are disposable in the name of national security and world dominance,” Osorio said.

Dr. Jamaica Heolimeleikalano Osorio is lead artist of the virtual documentary, "On the Morning You Wake (To the End of the World)," an official selection of the New Frontier section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Daniella Zalcman, courtesy of Jamaica Heolimeleikalano Osorio)

“So our story begins with a reminder: Nuclearization is not simply a future existential threat, but rather, the consequences of nuclearization have been carried by the people of Oceania for decades,” she said. “We of Oceania have been living with its fallout since nuclear testing began at Bikini Atoll in 1946.”

Osorio said the production follows the lead of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific Movement, which calls for an end to nuclearization and independence in the Pacific.

“We bring with us all the stories and ancestral knowledge to build a world that doesn’t have to end again, for any of us, tomorrow,” Osorio said. “We hope you have the courage to join us.”

Osorio is an assistant professor of Indigenous and Native Hawai’ian politics at the University of Hawai’I at Mānoa, where she obtained her doctorate in Hawai’ian literature in 2018. She is a three-time national poetry champion, poetry mentor and author of the book, “Remembering our Intimacies: Moʻolelo, Aloha ʻĀina, and Ea,” which was published in 2021 by the University of Minnesota Press.

In 2020, her poetry and activism were the subject of an award-winning film, “This is the Way we Rise,” directed by Ciara Lacey, which was featured in Vogue and at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance Institute Meet the Artist: Jamaica Heolimeleikalani Osorio

‘This Is Not A Ceremony’
Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon)

Canadian Ahnahktsipiitaa, also known as Colin Van Loon, is Blackfoot and Dutch, hailing from The Piikani Nation.

His cinematic virtual reality production, “This is Not A Ceremony,” part of the Sundance New Frontier program, is described as “darkly humorous and occasionally caustic,” telling the story of Adam North Peigan, Robert Sinclair and others, and the struggles and conflicts of growing up as an Indigenous man, according to the Sundance website.

Van Loon is the lead artist, and the production included key collaborators Olivier Leroux, James Monkman and Jessica Dymond.

He grew up with his mother in Lethbridge and other southern Alberta towns in Canada.

“I really love our people, and when I say ‘our’ I mean Piikani and Niitsitapi as a whole,” he told Indian Country Today. “I am Blackfoot/Niitsitapi as well as Dutch. I am very Blackfoot-centric but try to remain inclusive to other nations and their ways. I wanted everyone to feel they were represented fairly.”

The virtual reality production, "This is Not a Ceremony," by lead artist Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon), is an official selection of the New Frontier Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

He was raised by his mother and grandmother, Edith North Peigan, whose name later became Van Loon.

“Edith was very much a victim of disenfranchisement, even though her husband, my grandfather Buddy Van Loon, was also Blackfoot through his mother, and our Kainai relations, the Holloway family,” he said.

Van Loon said nonetheless they remained close to their kin in the North Peigan family.

“When I was a younger man I was very close with Jimmy Small Legs, a cousin to Edith and me," he said. “Jim was able to show me a great deal of our Piikani traditions. This had major impacts on me growing up and it often shows up in my work. Jimmy and his wife Joanne adopted me in our Niitsitapi tradition, so I also refer to Jim as my grandfather and Joanne as my grandmother, as is common practice within The Blackfoot confederacy Piikani, Siksika and Kainai and Aamskapi Pikuni.”

The importance of family is evident in his work, he said.

Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon), Blackfoot and Dutch, is lead artist of the cinematic virtual reality production, "This is Not a Ceremony," an official selection of the New Frontier section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Luis Alvarez, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Family, kinship and reciprocity are values that show up in my work,” he said. “Adam North Peigan is my relation, and I wanted to showcase his story, as these moments are clear examples of systematic racism in Canada, and it’s an important story to tell in the framework of reconciliation.”

He continued, “There can be no reconciliation without truth, and both stories, Robert Sinclair and Brian Sinclair’s, and Adam North Peigan’s, are part of this. Additionally, Adam is a political advocate, working for our people and Survivors within the Sixties Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta and the Legacy of Hope Foundation. I wanted to support him and his work in some small way.”

He wants the audience to leave with a sense of the impact of the virtual reality storytelling experience.

“I wanted both Indigenous and settler audiences to see the strength and resilience of Adam North Peigan and Robert Sinclair,” he said. “For White settlers specifically, I hope it affects them and they feel compelled to bear witness and try to make changes within the national community of Canada, to do something about systemic racism and discrimination.

“Virtual reality (VR) brings the audience closer to the storytellers,” he said. “hey can see them up close, hear what they have to say, and feel it not only in their minds, but viscerally and in their hearts as well. I want settler audiences to feel uncomfortable, and I want them to take that discomfort and think about it and act on it. I hope this connection makes audiences feel more compelled to uphold their responsibility as a witness.”

He continued, “I am hoping that Indigenous audiences will see the incredible strength, dedication and tenacity of Adam North Peigan and Robert Sinclair, with their continued efforts.”

Van Loon is the operations manager for the Indigenous Matriarchs 4 AR/VR media lab (IM4-Lab), and he sits on the Telefilm Indigenous Working Group, among others. He works to elevate the voices and stories of Indigenous peoples in his community by creating spaces for youth works in the Talking Stick’s Festivals REEL Reservation: Indigenous Cinematic Indigenous Sovereignty Series, or through his company, Blackfoot Nation Films.

Sundance Institute Meet the Artist: Ahnahktsipiitaa (Colin Van Loon)

A still shot illustrates the augmented reality of the production, "ATUA" by Tanu Gago, Jermaine Dean and Kat Lintott of New Zealand. The production is an official selection of the New Frontier section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Imery Watson, courtesy of Sundance Institute)

‘ATUA’
Tanu Gago and Jermaine Deane

The New Zealand augmented reality, or AR, production, “ATUA,” reimagines the “realm of Pacific gods,” including claiming space for gender diverse communities “impacted by colonial contact,” according to the Sundance website.

The lead artists are Tanu Gago and Jermaine Dean, neither of whom could be reached for comment. Key collaborators are Kat Lintott, Carthew Neal, Nacoya Anderson).

Sundance Institute Meet the Artists: Tanu Gago and Jermaine Dean

‘Chiqui’
Carlos Cardona

One other production, "Chiqui," addresses Indigenous themes but was made by a non-Native director.

The series is from award-winning Colombian-American director and cinematographer Carlos Cardona, and is part of Sundance's Indie Episodic Program, not the Indigenous Program.

A poster image illustrates the series, "Chiqui," by Colombian-American Carlos Cardona. The series is an official selection of the Indie Episodic Pilot Showcase at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

Cardona, who is director and screenwriter, tells the story of his parents, Chiqui and Carlos, who immigrated from Colombia to the United States in 1987 only to learn the American dream was not as achievable as they had thought.

“The series follows Chiqui and Carlos as they struggle to make a life in a new country and the difficult process of assimilation and adjustment they face,” he told Indian Country Today.

He said the couple and their unborn son eventually settled on Montauk, Long Island, an area that had been home to the Shinnecock and Montauk people. The narrative eventually crosses paths with current citizens of the Shinnecock, and their relationship with other racial groups and castes such as the working class and ultra-rich in the Hamptons. It also deals with racism that still remains for Central American immigrants, he said.

“As a result of centuries of colonialism, many indigenous Colombians have either lost or buried their Indigenous roots in favor of embracing White European culture and tradition, sometimes using their mixed lineages as a way of navigating a racial hierarchy in the country,” he said.

“The characters struggle with these issues both internally, as well as externally, while they face prejudice from some while inflicting it on others,” he said.

He wants audiences to come away with a better understanding of  immigrants.

“Latin American immigrants, specifically Colombian immigrants, are not just what is seen in popular media,” Cardona said. “The narratives often associated with Colombian immigrants, and specifically of the ‘80s, are almost always rooted in Pablo Escobar and the drug trade and the stereotypes that have become familiar tropes in film and television."

He continued, “I want people to see an alternative perspective on the Latino immigrant experience that focuses on the internal lives of the characters and their struggles with language and identity rather than only the familiar clichés of external hardship. ‘Chiqui’ allows the characters to be complicated without demanding the audience love and pity them immediately by virtue of them being naive immigrants.”

‘Chiqui’ was created in Brooklyn, New York, on the traditional territories of the Munsee, Lenape and Canarsie tribes and in Southampton and Montauk, New York, on the traditional territories of the Shinnecock and Montauk.

Cardona has worked in narrative and documentary for more than a decade. He has two films currently streaming on Amazon Prime: his first feature, “Second Chance,” a crime thriller set in New York City, and his second feature, “Scenes from a Breakup,” a work of auto-fiction.

“I have seldom seen content produced about the Latino immigrant experience from a first-generation American lens,” he said. “I think my perspective is unique because I grew up between two worlds that has given me the ability to make cultural and self-reflective criticisms about both Colombia and America.”

Producers are Daniel Fermin Pfeffer and Sophia de Baun.

Sundance Institute Meet the Artist: Carlos Cardona

For more info

The Sundance Film Festival 2022 will be almost exclusively virtual this year, running from Jan. 20-30. Feature films and short films are available for viewing only in the U.S.. The New Frontier and Indie Series programs are available to international audiences with an Explorer Pass. For details about obtaining tickets and access for viewing, visit the festival website.

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