Sundance Me Outside: Film Festivals and the Rise of Indigenous Cinema
by Bird Runningwater
Although TIFF's First Peoples Cinema programme is the largest retrospective of its type to screen in North America to date, it builds upon almost three decades of efforts by filmmakers, curators, festival programmers and development labs to bring this work to wide public attention. While I have been asked to write specifically about how the Sundance Institute and Film Festival have helped to create a space for Indigenous cinema, the story goes back to a time when political shifts were beginning to happen in Indigenous communities worldwide. The rise of Indigenous cinema is inextricably tied to a political resurgence as much as it is to the exponential growth of the international film festival circuit since the 1990s, and the parallel explosion of the American independent film market. It is not simply a niche, special-interest cinema, but a global cinema, and its history is also the history of one of the most significant developments in international film in recent decades.
Robert Redford and a group of friends founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 with the aim of supporting and developing independent American filmmakers as a counterweight to the dominant Hollywood studio system. However, this had been preceded by another initiative of Redford's in the late 1970s to create workshops specifically for Native filmmakers — an initiative that met with little response from Native communities. This is less surprising than it might seem, given that it had only been a decade since the US government had ended its termination policy that had sought to dissolve Native self-government and integrate Native Americans into white society. For those Native Americans who were beginning to develop a political and cultural consciousness, filmmaking was quite far off the radar.
Nevertheless, the germ of Redford's original initiative remained alive with the creation of the Sundance Institute. The presence of two Native Americans at the founding meeting — Larry Little Bird of the Taos Pueblo and Chris Spotted Eagle of the Houmas Nation — indicated the important part that Indigenous filmmaking was supposed to play in Sundance's conception of a rejuvenated American independent cinema. Though there was little Native participation during the first decade of the Institute's Lab Programs or in the Sundance Film Festival (created in 1984 after the Institute acquired the United States Film Festival to provide a platform for works that had been developed in the Sundance Lab program), the Columbian quincentenary in 1992 prompted the Institute to undertake a renewed search for Native screenwriters and directors. This led to the creation of the Native Forum showcase as an official category at the festival in 1994, while at the same time, filmmakers such as Greg Sarris, Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie began to participate in the Institute's Feature Film Program Labs. Since the successful Sundance premieres of such Institute-supported projects as Daniel Sackheim's Grand Avenue and Eyre's Smoke Signals, a number of other Indigenous films — including Randy Redroad's The Doe Boy, Shirley Cheechoo's Bearwalker, Sterlin Harjo's Four Sheets to the Wind, Taika Waititi's Eagle vs Shark and Boy, Billy Luther's Miss Navajo, Andrew Okpeaha MacLean's On the Ice and Aurora Guerrero's Mosquita y Mari — have benefited from support through the Institute's Native Lab, Screenwriters Lab or Directors Lab prior to their premieres at the festival.
Sundance's two-pronged approach of providing Native filmmakers with developmental support and festival exposure has helped to both foster an Indigenous filmmaking community and build audiences for Indigenous cinema throughout North America. The Institute has followed its original Native Lab by collaborating on Labs for Maori and Australian Aboriginal filmmakers, and it has also recently advised on the establishment of support mechanisms for Sami filmmakers. By the time the Native Forum section of the festival was retired in 2004, it had definitively put Indigenous cinema on the cultural map, having expanded to present Native films from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Greenland, Polynesia, and many other Indigenous nations around the world. Indigenous films now find regular spots in the festival's official competition sections, and have also found pride of place at other top festivals around the world, including Cannes, Berlin and Venice. With their work now being presented globally, Indigenous filmmakers are not only giving voice to their people and communities, but helping to redefine the cinematic landscape for the twenty-first century.
Bird Runningwater belongs to the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache peoples, and currently serves as Director of the Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous program.