PEOPLE: Native filmmakers use eye, experience to winnow entries for Film + Video Festival
New York—Every other year, the Film + Video Festival at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian begins by selecting 100 films, from shorts as long as five minutes each to feature-length films, to screen during the two-day festival.
The selectors are Native filmmakers from across the Western Hemisphere, artists who, like the makers of the films they are screening, struggle to give voice to the unique stories of Native America. The task of screening more than 700 films could be mind-numbing, but Elizabeth Weatherford, director of the museum’s Film and Video Center, always seems to pick the right four people. When the festival, which this year begins March 31 and concludes April 3, dims the lights it will be these selectors to thank for helping to shape a great festival.
The 2011 festival’s selectors are Ana Rosa Duarte, who is Maya from Mérida, Yucatán; Helen Haig-Brown, Tsilhqot’in Nation, from interior British Columbia; Terry Jones, Seneca, from northwest New York; and Nancy Mithlo, Chiricahua Apache, from Apache, Okla. The selectors, who are all filmmakers, recently sat down for a conversation with the Film and Video Center’s staff. They are Weatherford, Amalia Cordova, Millie Seubert, and Reaghan Tarbell, who is Kahnawake Mohawk. The interviews have been edited to present an overview of the background experiences about filmmaking that have influenced the selectors.
Film and Video Center: Where is home, where are you from?
Nancy Mithlo: I am a cultural anthropologist by training and am very interested in contemporary Native arts, the world of creative production, creative thought, for indigenous peoples…. My past story is that my father was one of those kids that was taken away from his community of Apache, Okla.—we’re Chiricahua Apache—by his mom, at a young age. It wasn’t a forced residential school system, but it was a form of assimilation. And when he wanted to return home, I was a part of that process with him. It’s kind of sweet now, because my Apache relatives will say that I brought Dad back home, but I always feel that Dad brought me home. Out of my generation I’m the one that has a great longing and love for that community and that land and the extended family of the Mithlos that exists in the plains of Oklahoma.
Terry Jones: I am a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians located in upstate New York. I’m an independent filmmaker [and have] recently moved back to the reservation after 26 years here in New York City. My rez—or, actually, we call it our territory, because reservation implies that you were somewhere and they moved you, but we still inhabit [our original] area—we are about 40,000 square acres, situated about 30 miles south of Buffalo, N.Y.…. Growing up on my rez, I really didn’t have a whole lot of role models. Luckily for me in the late ’70s and early ’80s they had these federal programs where they brought photo journalism and video workshops for gifted Native youth. That’s when I thought more about photography as a way of documenting life, or Native life. But even then, photography was still considered new. The Indians back home didn’t consider photography art; it was usually beading, and usually carving, but it was never photography.
Helen Haig-Brown: I have always lived between my community in the interior and Vancouver. Probably the majority of life has been in the city, Vancouver…. My mom went to school, University [of British Columbia], when I was a child, so we moved to the city then. My father ended up trading in his career from working as a teacher in the interior and became a freelance writer in Vancouver, so he bought a place there. My mother, when she finished school, moved home. We were split between the two places quite consistently throughout our life after that…. Yeah, in a lot of ways it was a conflict…. I’ve had to come to a place where it’s like, “OK, I have to live in both places to a degree.” Trying to find a good compromise or a way to stay balanced within that is quite difficult. I finally decided I was ready to create my base back in the Tsilhqot’in, in the country. Right now, I just travel all the time into the cities. That’s kind of a balance, though it doesn’t seem like the balance that I want [laugh]. Hopefully I can, at some point, just come to the city for two months of the year, maybe even more, if I needed to do a specific project.
Ana Rosa Duarte: I am Ana Rosa Duarte. I come from Mérida, Yucatán, and I am Maya. I’m here to participate and share my experience working with Mayan communities of the southern and southeastern region of Mexico, as well as to learn what is done here in this festival.
Film and Video Center: What influences guided you to filmmaking or guides you now as a filmmaker?
Ana Rosa Duarte: Well, it was a matter of destiny. I left my community and went to the university and became an anthropologist. However, I was restless, the methodologies of anthropological work were not entirely satisfying, and I felt I needed to find another way…to provide a voice for the indigenous communities. This was how I began thinking of using the available media—in this case [available] due to the high volume of migration to the main cities in Yucatán, to other states of Mexico and also to the United States. I realized there was access to video cameras, and it occurred to me that I should try to use that language so that the people in the communities could communicate, not only amongst themselves, but also with the outside, for them to have a voice, so that they are not limited to written forms… and also the culture is visual, very visual.
Helen Haig-Brown: I remember it being really nerve-wracking when starting, especially trying to tell traditional stories, or important stories. I spent a lot of years hiding in Vancouver, to develop my skills to feel ready enough to go home…. All of a sudden I began to notice, “Hey, wait a second, my uncle is always video recording and editing on his computer;” they’re family videos, they’re recordings of events. He’s a rancher; he puts up the hay…. So he drives a tractor all day and then he’s taught himself to edit on a computer. Then I have a couple other aunts and my mother who have been recording stories and songs since the ’60s. So there’s not only old Super 8 footage that my uncle did, there’s VHS from another aunt, who’s been recording through the ’80s and ’90s. That’s just my family. Then I recognized, it dawned on me, “Oh, my God! No wonder I do what I do!” It’s interesting to see I’ve always been following them or been taught by them in some way…. So, doing the films now that I’ve been doing at home, actually doing films that are from home, that are in our language, that are our stories, that are acted by people all in our community—it’s been the first time that I’m being recognized as a filmmaker and feel like I’ve come home.
Terry Jones: Reaghan Tarbell is an influence [laugh]. I think for filmmakers and artists in general there’s a lack of role models. I used to always complain growing up, “Whose footsteps can I follow in? Who can I emulate?” I actually thought that was a curse until I got to a place of embracing my own artistry, to realize we all have our own machetes and we cut our own path; it’s actually liberating to do work that’s not mainstream. Being in New York, everyone wants to be an actor, everybody wants to be a writer, but what makes you you? Everyone’s trying to fit into this mainstream ideal.
Film and Video Center: We’ve asked you to come in and be part of the selection portion of the Native American Film + Video Festival. I’m curious what you’ve been seeing and how you’ve been experiencing the viewing of these works. What do you take away from them?
Nancy Mithlo: In a lot of my academic work and my essays, [and my] book, I’ve been challenged for my adoption of a pan-tribal sensibility because I’m not being specific to one tribe, one geographic location, one time period. Our academic life has gotten narrower and narrower in scope, and at the same time the world has gotten broader and broader in terms of communication and globalization. I’ve found that I’ve had to advocate for a sense of what I know by common sense, and that means multiple tribal communities organizing together for higher goals—and that any kind of resistance to that is really a resistance to political and social development and change and empowerment. And so, I’ve entered, I think unexpectedly, into the film festival feeling that same sense of pan-tribal indigenous empowerment through being able to observe and to watch and engage in that experiential learning.
There is a sense of, still, indigenous communities being locked in time and space, indigenous communities not having access to the same resources, including media, [and] indigenous communities trying still to react against Western norms instead of being empowered outside of those norms.
Terry Jones: For me, my whole experience as a filmmaker, actually my whole life, has been unconventional: I’m left-handed, I have a different eye for art and the new media, whether it’s film or photography; I came to New York, I left the reservation. I didn’t get a college degree, I got real-life experiences in terms of the skills I have—working with a nonprofit organization for four years on their board, sitting on the panel for the New York State Council for the Arts gives me a strong sense of what needs to go into a grant; my experiences with ABC/Disney and the different workshops and programs I’ve been in for filmmaking—I’ve just been a sponge, completely learning…. In terms of being a selector, I think I have a different eye. Growing up traditional—I don’t want to say it in a way that sounds like ‘I’m a real Indian,’ but because I’m traditional and I come from a very traditional upbringing, and then being able to live in the city, I know that whole [experience] from the point of being traditional to being completely urban and everything in between.
Screening all these films from indigenous people throughout the hemisphere—the content may be different, but the processes are all the same—we’re all dealing with language, we’re all dealing with preservation of language, and we’re dealing with maintaining our culture. The biggest thing that I’m seeing is that a lot of these stories are about trying to find that balance between personal self and dealing with the outside world and dealing with yourself in the community.
American Indian News Service