Saturday, February 19, 2011

Industry puts Natives in a box,

PostPosted: Tue Feb 16, 2010 5:12 am Post subject: Industry puts Natives ‘in a box,’ panel at Missoula document

It would seem like a filmmaker of Chris Eyre's stature shouldn't have trouble finding meaningful work. His first feature-length film, "Smoke Signals," won the Filmmakers Trophy and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. His 2004 film, "Edge of America," was likewise a hit at Sundance, and earned him the Directors Guild of America's award for outstanding directorial achievement in children's programs - making him the first Native American to win the award.

But at a panel discussion on issues faced by Native American filmmakers on Monday, Eyre was blunt about the realities of working in his chosen field.

"Just because you do something one way a certain year and it works, doesn't mean you can do it successfully next time," he said. "There is no map. You live hand to mouth a lot. But if it's what you love, it's the greatest thing in the world."

Those sentiments were echoed by several members of the panel that convened at the Downtown Dance Collective as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which continues through this weekend at the Wilma Theatre and other downtown venues.

Addressing an audience of several dozen festivalgoers, filmmaker Angelo Baca said the challenges of finding a foothold in the film industry are all the greater for young Native Americans.

"It's really difficult to get Natives as filmmakers and actors to break into the mainstream," said Baca, who works with the Native Voices Program at the University of Washington. "We have to create our own opportunities, and it's definitely hard."

The challenges amount to something of a Catch-22, according to Rene Haynes, a Hollywood casting agent who specializes in Native American projects.

"Not enough Native actors get into mainstream projects just as actors; they're always sort of put into a box," said Haynes. "And the problem has always been that there is only a handful of (Native American) actors who are known as individuals who can help get a picture made. They can't even entirely get a ‘green light' on a picture."


Lacking such established stars, precious few films about and by Native Americans end up getting made - and those that do are all too often of the variety referred to by Haynes as "really dreadful ‘leather-and-feather' historical movies."

"I will say, probably 80 percent of the scripts I'm seeing these days are on contemporary subjects," noted Haynes. "It's a crime that these aren't being realized."

Much of the challenge comes from the funding opportunities within Native American communities, noted Tracy Rector, director of "Unreserved," a documentary that screened earlier Monday at the Wilma Theatre.

"A lot of funding for these films comes from tribes and communities; but the challenge is when you're talking about, say, films about Natives living in cities - where's the funding for that?" said Rector. "In terms of funding, we have to be creative."

Shirley Sneve, executive director of the Native American Public Telecommunications, said that the key is finding ways in which Native American stories can be made universal stories.

"We try to work with our filmmakers to say, ‘Who do you want to watch this film? Who's your target audience?'" said Sneve, whose organization provides funding for Native American film projects. "One thing that's important is that it's a story everybody can relate to."

Ultimately, all on the panel agreed that filmmaking - whether in the documentary or fiction realm - is a critical component of building community and reinforcing identity among Native Americans in the contemporary world.

"I always think of (filmmaking) as one of the ultimate sovereign acts," said Baca. "It's like running your own small nation; you have to plan and schedule and make sure everybody's doing their job, if you want to make things move smoothly. ... If we continue to build the community, I believe it'll become easier."

Monday's panel was part of a festival "sidebar" dubbed "Indigenous Visions." Funded through grants from the Academy Foundation, Humanities Montana, the University of Montana's Native American Studies department, ITVS, Native American Public Telecommunications, and the Silver Foundation, "Indigenous Visions" also brought screenings of nine documentaries by Native American filmmakers to this year's festival.

Most of those screenings have already taken place, with the exception of Stanley Nelson's "Wounded Knee" (Thursday, Feb. 18, at 5:45 p.m.) and Heather Rae's "Trudell" (Sunday, Feb. 21, at 4:50 p.m.).

For information about those screenings, as well as other festival panel discussions and special events, visit

Reporter Joe Nickell can be reached at 523-5358, or on

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