Art Works Blog

Filming the Indigenous Experience

Poster courtesy of International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management

The International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management doesn’t exactly bear a name that screams arts organization. And that’s because it isn’t one: it’s a research and policy center that seeks to give greater agency to Native-American communities. Yet the Denver-based Institute also hosts the annual Indigenous Film & Arts Festival, featuring five days of film, discussion, and art activities. Recently awarded a Challenge America grant from the NEA, the festival will host its ninth edition this autumn.

The idea for the festival began in 2003 when the Institute hosted a one-off screening of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), which was honored at numerous international film festivals for its portrayal of Inuit culture. “We had such a good turnout for that one screening, that we really thought we could grow it into a full-fledged film festival and make that a major part of our public outreach effort,” said Jeanne Rubin, who doubles as the festival’s director and the Institute’s general counsel.

Rubin explained that although the Institute focuses on community issues, much of their work involves small roundtables with experts and leaders from various fields. “It’s not a forum that’s amenable to public outreach and educating the public,” she said. That’s where the power of film comes in.

The festival screens roughly 20 documentaries and narratives that range from a few minutes to standard feature-length. All focus on indigenous communities, but perhaps more importantly, most are also made by Native filmmakers. “What I think is so powerful about our festival is that we have people telling their own stories,” Rubin said. “It provides an authenticity to the message. It’s not a story being filtered through somebody else’s lens.”

All too often, this “lens” means Hollywood, which Rubin believes perpetuates notions that Native Americans are historical figures without a place in contemporary society. Tribes also tend to be flattened into one generic “Indian” population, ignoring the diversity of and within indigenous cultures.

Films such as those shown at the festival are trying to change that, and speak to the traditions, struggles, and daily life of Native communities, as well as their special legal status as independent governments within the United States. Every movie is also followed by a discussion or Q&A session, providing further connections with the stories onscreen. Non-Native audience members may learn about an indigenous perspective on familiar issues such as whaling or climate change; other times, films may introduce them to topics that hadn’t even been on their radar.

“People grow up and become decision-makers in law. They become Congressmen and lawyers and judges and go into industry and academia,” said Rubin. “If you don’t have that more accurate understanding of Indian people and Indian tribes, it colors your approach to public policy, or if you’re in industry, how you deal with tribes. I think film plays a really important role in helping people understand what tribes are all about and the kinds of issues that Indian tribes are concerned with.”

For indigenous audiences, the film festival often strikes a deeper chord. “We have stories that really resonate on a personal level with a lot of the Native community,” Rubin said. The films can also serve as inspiration, particularly for younger audiences. Every year, the festival screens roughly ten films at schools across the Denver area, and many of these movies are made by students themselves. Seeing work made by their peers can cause school-age audiences to become “really motivated to get involved with filmmaking themselves as a creative outlet,” Rubin said. “They start realizing that they have stories and their stories are important.”

For a full list of FY 2012 Challenge America grantees, please visit the grants section of our website.

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