Quietly Radical Mission at Sundance: Supporting Native Filmmakers
by Jamilah King
January 20 2012
It's days before the Sundance Film Festival and Aurora
Guerrero is busy. The 40-year-old filmmaker is set to
debut her first feature-length project "Mosquita y Mari"
at the festival in Park City, Utah, on Saturday, but
it's Wednesday and she finds herself in Los Angeles
preparing to get in front of the camera for a television
spot on up-and-coming filmmakers to watch.
It's not exactly a standard Hollywood story. Her
independent film is a teenage love story between two
Chicana best friends who grow up in South East Los
Angeles' vibrant immigrant community. It relied largely
on a grassroots funding campaign to raise money for
production. But those facts have helped to lock in her
place on the year's indy film radar. When asked if
there's any one person who helped make all of it happen,
she doesn't hesitate.
"Bird," Guerrero says. "Bird Runningwater."
Bird, it turns out, is the director of Native American
and Indigenous Programs at the Sundance Institute. In
that capacity, and along with program manager Owl
Johnson, Bird oversees NativeLabs, an innovative
fellowship program that works with indigenous
screenwriters and directors to help produce and show
work that isn't easy to see elsewhere.
Guerrero recounts Bird's steady and persistent guidance.
He helped mentor her through re-writing drafts of her
script, which was over a decade in the making. And when
it was time to go into post-production, it was Bird who
nominated her for a prestigious TimeWarner fellowship to
help carry the film across the finish line.
"He's been behind a lot of indigenous filmmakers of
color who are saying something different through
contemporary cinema," Guerrero says about Bird.
In an industry that struggles to include even more
visible communities of color, like black actors and
directors, indigenous artists often find it difficult to
get support for their work. But Bird represents someone
within an established institution who's making it
happen. Forget the status quo. There are indigenous
stories to tell and there are people already telling
them. It all goes to show that with the right support,
our media landscape can be as forthcoming and
representative as the people it purports to serve.
"I think that some of the most exciting films down the
road are going to come from native filmmakers," Bird
says. "Our job is to help find those filmmakers and help
them make their stories the strongest they can be."
The Sundance Institute has maintained a commitment to
native filmmakers since its inception in 1981. But that
mission was bumped up a notch in the late 90s when it
held a series of workshops for native filmmakers at
UCLA. In 2008, NativeLabs became more intentional about
its outreach and process by instituting a two-pronged
approach: immersion in a native community and exposure
to Sundance itself. Each year, a group of native
filmmakers work on their craft at the Mescalero Apache
reservation in New Mexico and then screen their work at
the Sundance Film Festival. Bird estimates that a total
of 70 filmmakers have gone through the program.
"I really believe in the ability and talent of our
native people," Bird says, noting that the process of
filmmaking has become much more accessible in recent
years with advancements in technology.
Sterlin Harjo is another indigenous filmmaker who's gone
through NativeLabs. He premiered his feature, "Barking
Water," at Sundance in 2008 and calls Bird "the unsung
hero of indigenous film."
"There's a lot of institutions out there that try to
promote native films and native filmmakers," Harjo says.
"But they do it from the outside-in. It's approached in
this very institutionalized way."
Sundance, he says, is different in that it relies on
native filmmakers to support other native filmmakers.
"There's no museum-type feel to it," Hardjo continues.
"It's not like there's people looking at your work and
trying to analyze it," Harjo says, alluding to the
popular ways in which indigenous filmmakers have their
lives and work scrutinized.
That's an important selling point for many native
filmmakers, who do their creative work in the face of
decades of racist caricatures promoted by Hollywood.
"It's taken Hollywood a long time to realize that you
can have a narrative fiction film that just happens to
have native characters in it," says Elise Marrubio, an
associate professor of American Indian Studies at
Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Marrubio also directs
the college's Native American Film Series. "There's a
cultural perception of what a film with native people
should look like, and that stereotype has been very hard
to break down."
And then there's the business of filmmaking. When the
economic crisis hit in 2009, Guerrero needed to find a
new producer for her film. Bird helped her land Chad
Burris, who grew up in Oklahoma before setting out for
law school in Los Angeles.
"It's crazy difficult," Burris said about securing
funding for the film. "You don't have any big name
actors, you don't have a very recognizable audience, you
don't have a lot of the things that you need to get
financed." But he says he was motivated by the project's
bigger goals. "It's allowed someone that's got a fresh
voice to tell a story that otherwise may not get told."
The message is having an impact.
"We are now in a moment in our world where native people
are saying `no longer do we want people making films
about us as if they know us,'" Marrubio says. "We're
going to decide what stories we want to tell, how they
want to tell them, and we're going to make the movies."
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