Quietly Radical Mission at Sundance: Supporting Native Filmmakers
By: Jamilah King
It’s days before the Sundance Film Festival and Aurora Guerrero is busy. The 40-year-old filmmaker is set to
debut her first feature-length project “Mosquita y Mari” at the festival in Park City, Utah, on Saturday, but it’s Wednesday and she finds herself in Los Angeles preparing to get in front of the camera for a television spot on up-and-coming filmmakers to watch.
It’s not exactly a standard Hollywood story. Her independent film is a teenage love story between two Chicana best friends who grow up in South East Los Angeles’ vibrant immigrant community. It relied largely on a grassroots funding campaign to raise money for production. But those facts have helped to lock in her place on the year’s indy film radar. When asked if there’s any one person who helped make all of it happen, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Bird,” Guerrero says. “Bird Runningwater.”
Bird, it turns out, is the director of Native American and Indigenous Programs at the Sundance Institute. In that capacity, and along with program manager Owl Johnson, Bird oversees NativeLabs, an innovative fellowship program that works with indigenous screenwriters and directors to help produce and show work that isn’t easy to see elsewhere.
Guerrero recounts Bird’s steady and persistent guidance. He helped mentor her through re-writing drafts of her script, which was over a decade in the making. And when it was time to go into post-production, it was Bird who nominated her for a prestigious TimeWarner fellowship to help carry the film across the finish line.
“He’s been behind a lot of indigenous filmmakers of color who are saying something different through contemporary cinema,” Guerrero says about Bird.
In an industry that struggles to include even more visible communities of color, like black actors and directors, indigenous artists often find it difficult to get support for their work. But Bird represents someone within an established institution who’s making it happen. Forget the status quo. There are indigenous stories to tell and there are people already telling them. It all goes to show that with the right support, our media landscape can be as forthcoming and representative as the people it purports to serve.
“I think that some of the most exciting films down the road are going to come from native filmmakers,” Bird says. “Our job is to help find those filmmakers and help them make their stories the strongest they can be.”
The Sundance Institute has maintained a commitment to native filmmakers since its inception in 1981. But that mission was bumped up a notch in the late 90s when it held a series of workshops for native filmmakers at UCLA. In 2008, NativeLabs became more intentional about its outreach and process by instituting a two-pronged approach: immersion in a native community and exposure to Sundance itself. Each year, a group of native filmmakers work on their craft at the Mescalero Apache reservation in New Mexico and then screen their work at the Sundance Film Festival. Bird estimates that a total of 70 filmmakers have gone through the program.
“I really believe in the ability and talent of our native people,” Bird says, noting that the process of filmmaking has become much more accessible in recent years with advancements in technology.
Sterlin Harjo is another indigenous filmmaker who’s gone through NativeLabs. He premiered his feature, “Barking Water,” at Sundance in 2008 and calls Bird “the unsung hero of indigenous film.”
“There’s a lot of institutions out there that try to promote native films and native filmmakers,” Harjo says. “But they do it from the outside-in. It’s approached in this very institutionalized way.”
Sundance, he says, is different in that it relies on native filmmakers to support other native filmmakers. “There’s no museum-type feel to it,” Hardjo continues. “It’s not like there’s people looking at your work and trying to analyze it,” Harjo says, alluding to the popular ways in which indigenous filmmakers have their lives and work scrutinized.
That’s an important selling point for many native filmmakers, who do their creative work in the face of decades of racist caricatures promoted by Hollywood.
“It’s taken Hollywood a long time to realize that you can have a narrative fiction film that just happens to have native characters in it,” says Elise Marrubio, an associate professor of American Indian Studies at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. Marrubio also directs the college’s Native American Film Series. “There’s a cultural perception of what a film with native people should look like, and that stereotype has been very hard to break down.”
And then there’s the business of filmmaking. When the economic crisis hit in 2009, Guerrero needed to find a new producer for her film. Bird helped her land Chad Burris, who grew up in Oklahoma before setting out for law school in Los Angeles.
“It’s crazy difficult,” Burris said about securing funding for the film. “You don’t have any big name actors, you don’t have a very recognizable audience, you don’t have a lot of the things that you need to get financed.” But he says he was motivated by the project’s bigger goals. “It’s allowed someone that’s got a fresh voice to tell a story that otherwise may not get told.”
The message is having an impact.
“We are now in a moment in our world where native people are saying ‘no longer do we want people making films about us as if they know us,’” Marrubio says. “We’re going to decide what stories we want to tell, how they want to tell them, and we’re going to make the movies.”