PARK CITY 2000: Native Forum Breaks Out
by Beth Pinsker
"If you want to help Native filmmakers, hire Gary Farmer," says Gary
Farmer with a laugh on the day he arrived at this year's festival. This
is no act of conceit, but rather a plea for funds. Sundance 2000 may
have been a battle cry for such filmmakers trying to cash in on the
Gary Farmer both stars in 'Heater' and
attention "Smoke Signals" got at the 1998 festival, but busy
jacks-of-all-trades like Farmer are constantly looking further into the
future. For instance, Farmer isn't just at the festival to promote his
role in Terrence Odette's "Heater" or the short documentary he directed,
"What the Eagle Hears." He's here to drum up money for his next project.
And the one after that. And the one after that.
"I try to get a film in every year," he says, and he credits Robert
Redford and the Sundance labs for giving him the seed money to get
started years ago, and the technical abilities to put his ideas into
action. Sundance, he says, has been "integral to my abilities as a
filmmaker. It helps me make connections."
That said, Farmer still doesn't know what to do exactly, about being
part of a program generically called "Native Forum 2" or "Native Forum
5." Even though the works in these groupings are diverse and interesting
-- such as Jorge Manzano's prison love story "Johnnie Greyeyes" or Clint
Alberta's documentary aimed at his own outrageous character "Deep Inside
Clint Star" -- they are all jumbled together under these headings.
Farmer says that when he made posters to promote his short for this
festival, he put dozens of them up before realizing he hadn't marked
down the program number, and that might make it hard for people to find
his film. Not exactly the kind of buzz he got out of starring in
Dramatic competitor "Smoke Signals." "It works against us and it works
for us," he says.
When Shirley Cheechoo thought about what placement her first feature
film would get at the festival this year, she says, "I thought if I got
in the Native Forum, that would be great; it's in a place where it's my
community. I love to be in the Native Forum. I never really separated
it." However "Backroads," a 1970's story of three sisters who suffer the
consequences of racism and sexism when one of them is accused of murder,
ended up in the American Spectrum. Cheechoo says, "It's a real bonus. I
guess it gives us recognition that we can make feature films."
While this may sound like criticism from Farmer and Cheechoo, it isn't.
This is essentially the way the program was designed as not just a
showcase of Native filmmaking primarily in North America, but also as an
educational tool for budding Native filmmakers. The Native forum is
home, but it isn't supposed to last forever. Participating in the
screenwriting and directing labs, working with the summer UCLA
screenwriting program, networking, learning about funding sources,
exploring the work of peers -- it's all a part of building a film
community within the framework of the American and Canadian independent
film scenes. The idea is for Native filmmakers to be as integral a part
of the festival's programming as African-American, Latino or gay films.
In 'Backroads', Rinae Morriseau plays one of
Heather Rae, who has directed the Native Forum and the Sundance
Institute's Native programs virtually since their inception, says the
future of the sidebar could be as short as five more years. "It has
always been part of our goal to integrate," she says. "I always say I'm
going to work myself out of a job."
Given that the Native population numbers 2 million in the world, Rae
thinks that Native films will always be a niche genre. But she also
thinks there will continue to be Native films that transcend that
narrowness and make it as wide -- or wider -- into the world marketplace
as "Smoke Signals" did.
What she's looking to help build, as part of the Sundance team, is a
filmmaking industry that is constantly evolving, growing and learning,
and all the while maintaining the community spirit of Native peoples.
That means especially drawing upon the community for financial
resources. For the first time at the 2000 festival, Native tribes -- the
San Manuel, Agua Caliente, Pechanga and Viejas tribes from California --
are officially sponsoring programs. And gaming tribes are increasingly
willing to give arts grants to filmmakers.
"Within the next five years, I will consider the Native film community
thriving when there are a handful of features coming out each year," Rae
So far, though, the pace has been mostly about one a year. "Smoke
Signals" hit the marketplace in 1998. Valerie Red-Horse started
self-distributing her feature, "Naturally Native," in 1999 through
Landmark Theaters. This year's festival features Shirley Cheechoo's
"Backroads" in the American Spectrum. Next year, Rae says Randy
Redroad's "Doe Boy" should be ready to screen. Redroad is one of this
year's recipients of the NHK $10,000 cash grant (which Chris Eyre also
won) and he starts filming in the spring, with Eyre's production company
And yet, Rae says, this year she had more work submitted than she knew
what to do with. She had to turn many people down, and that led to one
of Park City's more memorable festival moments, when a group of Lakota
on horseback descended on the Library's parking lot for a ceremony and
private screening of a documentary about their tribe.
"The strongest 200 Indians I know are coming to Sundance this year," Rae
says. "I think that represents an over-proportion in terms of our
representation in the population."