Indigenous Filmmakers Gaining Greater Visibility by ‘Telling Our Own Stories’

Revelations that Canadian director Michelle Latimer’s self-proclaimed Indigenous roots may be nonexistent — an inconvenient truth that led to her film “Inconvenient Indian” being pulled from Sundance — have become a rallying cry for the global Indigenous film collective that the festival and its institute have been fostering for years.

Throughout this community, which spans North and Latin America across the Arctic to New Zealand, Australia, the Pacific Islands and beyond, the basic tenet has been that Indigenous cinema is “about telling our own stories, compared with the long tradition of colonial history where everybody else has been telling our story,” says Anne Lajla Utsi, managing director of the International Sámi Film Institute in Kautokeino, Norway.

The Sámi are an Indigenous people with a population of about 100,000 spread across Norway, Sweden, Finland and northern Russia; they have a traditional song form called yoik. The group has been making its mark on the film circuit, with Sámi director Amanda Kernell’s “Charter” representing Sweden in this year’s Oscar race.

A hotbed for the Indigenous movement, the organization parsed the headlines about Latimer with alarm, particularly as the scandal coincided with Indigenous filmmakers around the world increasingly breaking barriers and gaining greater visibility.

No one is questioning the legitimacy of Sundance-bound drama “Wild Indian” from first-time director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr.,  who grew up on Native American reservations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He underlines that all Indigenous cinema should be “very tribe-specific.”

Corbine Jr. looks forward to the Sundance debut of his dark drama about two Anishinaabe men bound by a murder that one of them committed during their traumatic teens, and credits Sundance Institute for nurturing his career and connecting him to Native filmmakers around the world.

“A lot of us have the same kinds of struggles,” Corbine Jr. says. These battles stem from “trying to figure out what was lost over the last few hundred years of our cultures being mixed in with the new, dominant culture.”

Sundance Indigenous Program director Bird Runningwater, says prospects for Indigenous filmmakers are improving not only in the U.S. but globally as well. “Lyle is part of this newer generation that has been able to build on the previous generations, who I think dealt with a very different world in order to get their work made,” Runningwater says.

Runningwater notes that interest in Native American talent in the U.S. has been “constantly escalating ever since Standing Rock,” the 2016 protests over the construction of an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation that straddles the North Dakota-South Dakota border. The movement has more recently gained traction during the renewed Black Lives Matter demonstrations and their wider racial reckoning.

The Black Lives Matter and Indigenous Lives Matter movements of 2020 “opened the doors to long overdue conversations about authentic representation and the need to provide better opportunities for First Nations writers, directors and producers,” says Penny Smallacombe, head of the Indigenous Department at funding entity Screen Australia.

Runningwater and Berlin festival programmer Maryanne Redpath, a longtime Indigenous cinema curator, point to the Hollywood success of director-writer Taika Waititi, who is of Māori heritage, as a major breakthrough.

When Waititi won the adapted screenplay Oscar last year for “Jojo Rabbit,” he dedicated the prize to “all the Indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories,” and told them: “We are the original storytellers and we can make it here as well.”

Waititi, who is set to direct and co-write Disney’s new “Star Wars” movie, has a long history with Sundance, which has been an important bridge between New Zealand and Hollywood. Native American director Sterlin Harjo, a Sundance alumnus whose first feature, “Four Sheets to the Wind,” premiered in Park City in 2007, is now writing and producing FX series “Reservation Dogs” in tandem with Waititi.

Another recent milestone for the global Indigenous cinema community is that, following cultural misappropriation complaints about “Frozen” — whose themes, such as the characters’ ancestry and relationships with the Northuldra tribe, are sensitive for Sámi audiences — Disney changed course for “Frozen 2” and consulted with a group of Sámi people, including Utsi of the International Sámi Film Institute.

Utsi is looking forward to the first yoik musical, “Árru,” which will be directed by first-timer Elle Sofe Sara, who broke out with several shorts, including “Sámi Boy.” “Árru,” which means “obstacle” in Northern Sami, is about an artist and single mother who fights a mining company to protect the reindeer herding industry.

“We have to make it very clear why Indigenous voices are important,” says Sami Film Institute film commissioner Liisa Holmberg. “It’s nothing to do with money or state borders or politics — it’s daily life. If we lose the connection to our language and our land, then we are in trouble.”

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