Storytelling on Film

Storytelling on Film: Convening an Industry

In the late 1970s, Weatherford was the anthropology professor at the School of Visual Arts, and the idea for a festival grew out of screenings of ethnographic films. In 1978, she said, the MAI was lobbying for a relocation from its out-of-the-way 155th Street building to the U.S. Customs House in lower Manhattan, current location of the NMAI George Gustav Heye Center. The MAI proposed a film program downtown as the first step. Weatherford expanded the proposal to a fullscale festival, showing both 16-mm films and the then-new medium of video and using the richly appointed Collector’s Office of the Customs House as a theater. “We were the first festival that was international and indigenous,” she says.

The biggest increase in festivals took place in the 1990s and 2000s. The Sundance Institute added its Native American and Indigenous Program to the annual Sundance Festival in 1994. Each Native film festival has redefined Indigenous cinema storytelling with its own brand of approach; they range globally from Montreal First Peoples Festival in Quebec, to Skabmagovat Film Festival in Inari, Finland, to the L.A. Skins Festival in Los Angeles, Calif. An International Film + Video Festival of Indigenous Peoples rotates across Latin America under the auspices of CLACPI, the Coordinadora, Latinoamericano de Cine y Comunicacion de los Pueblos Indigenas (Latin American Council of Indigenous People’s Film and Communication).

As new festivals emerge each year, they create an ever-expanding community for Native and Indigenous filmmaking worldwide. To support that initiative many Native festivals have begun to tour their programming content to universities and tribal communities. ImagineNATIVE has its Film + Video Tour and American Indian Film Institute its Tribal Touring Program. The National Museum of the American Indian is in talks to tour Native Cinema Showcase to museums and eventually to tribal communities.

Establishing lasting relationships with other organizations can be key for any fledgling festival. When imagineNATIVE was in its beginning stages, it reached out to the NMAI and its Film and Video Center. The relationship has shared new thoughts and formed dialogues as either party invited panelists, guest programmers or co-presenter for films. Ryle called it a “natural bridge” between both institutions. “That was a natural fit really, where we at least got to the position where we were able to build those partnerships a little more concretely.”

imagineNATIVE has continued creating partnerships with other festivals and artists, creating a global network for Indigenous cinema. Canada has set up an Indigenous Screen Office to support the development, production and marketing of indigenous content.

In his 16 years at the festival, Ryle has seen a parallel between the growth of Indigenous cinema and Native film festivals. “The more indigenous film festivals there are, the stronger our industry is. I really believe that. And that was the case for the early years. Especially at a time when the level of production wasn’t as high as it is now.

“Probably the biggest impact I think that our festivals have,” he says, “is that it really presented that perspective and did the work of bridge building, community building, educating, entertaining and enlightening, that really wasn’t happening elsewhere.”

The growth of an Indigenous cinema has given Native film festivals a scope of programming content that has diversified each year. Topics range from environmentalism and activism to politics and cultural preservation. Audiences have begun to take notice. Where once Native cinema was a niche genre in larger festivals, it is now in the forefront of international cinema. The heightened interest has brought significantly higher audiences to many Native festivals. NMAI’s Native Cinema Showcase this year, its 17th annual, drew the largest numbers ever, with more than 2,700 people. In its six days, it featured 50-plus films from seven countries.

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.