Storytelling on Film

Storytelling on Film: Convening an Industry

During the wave of 1970s activism that produced the occupations of Alcatraz, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Wounded Knee, Indigenous people learned the power of media to convey their message to the world. The first Native film festivals emerged to present nascent Native moviemaking. From a start in San Francisco in 1975, these conclaves have burgeoned into major forums allowing Native peoples to tell their own stories in their own voices.

The major showcase is now the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, Ont. Now in its 18th year, it presented more than 115 film and video works from 16 countries in a five-day run in October. Artistic Director Jason Ryle (Salteaux) says, “These works need to be seen, and oftentimes our festivals are really the only one presenting this work.”

Festivals this year are strongly engaged with current issues like the wave of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada and elsewhere. In fact, this season has been called the year of women’s empowerment. More than half of the films at this year’s Native Cinema Showcase in Santa Fe, N.M., this August were by or about Native women. At the imagineNATIVE festival, 72 percent of the works were by Indigenous female directors.

Three stand-out films chronicled the lives of prominent women leaders, Mankiller, about Cherokee Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller, 100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice, about Eloise Pepion Cobell (Blackfoot), and Dolores, about Dolores Huerta, co-leader with Cesar Chavez of the first farm workers union. Among the long list of prominent and on-therise female directors were Alethea Arnaquq- Baril (Inuk), for Angry Inuk, Razelle Benally (Navajo/Oglala Lakota), for Raven & He Walks with Thunder and Kayla Briët (Prairie Band Potawatomi) for Smoke That Travels.

Ryle emphasizes the therapeutic effect of the films. “This work is still a real healing force for us,” he said. “To create this work is a healing mechanism for ourselves and certainly for individual artists but also for the community.”

Ryle’s own showcase has been in the forefront of breaking the festival formula with innovative programming and international outreach. Launched in 2000, the festival grew out of the Aboriginal Film & Video Alliance, founded by Cynthia Lickers-Sage (Mohawk) and Vtape, a not-for-profit distributor of video art, along with other community partners. ImagineNATIVE is now the world’s largest presenter of Indigenous screen content.

Ryle says the festival started out as an artistic and cultural drive for Indigenous media in Canada. “imagineNATIVE was born out of a direct need because we didn't have a platform where the [Indigenous] artists can tell their stories and perspectives they wanted to.” He adds, “at the time all these others festivals were prescribing…what they believed was a genre, like Indigenous Cinema. Most of the films that were being presented at these places were created by non-Indigenous filmmakers.”

But Ryle was building on a quarter century of Native film festivals. The American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) was founded in 1975 by media analyst Michael Smith (Sioux) and actor Will Sampson (Creek). AIFI runs the oldest film festival in North America, the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, Calif. The Museum of the American Indian (MAI) followed in 1979 with the Native American Film + Video Festival, which continued under founder Elizabeth Weatherford when the MAI was taken over by the Smithsonian Institution as the National Museum of the American Indian in 1986. The Museum presented the Native American Film + Video Festival biennially in New York City until 2011. In 2000, it also founded the annual Native Cinema Showcase, which is still ongoing in New Mexico in conjunction with the Indian Art Market. Weatherford often observed that the festival was older than its Smithsonian affiliation.

Cynthia Benitez is a film curator and scholar specializing in Native and indigenous film. She is currently the Film Programmer for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Theresa Barbaro also contributed.