Red Cloud, famed statesman and warrior of the Lakota Sioux, is second only to Abraham Lincoln as the most photographed figure of the 19th century. Considering this, it’s hard to believe that, with the exception of Will Rogers (the Cherokee comedian/actor who had his own radio show in the 1930s), there was no Indian in any significant film role again until 1970, when Chief Dan George was cast as Old Lodge Skins in the film "Little Big Man."
"Little Big Man" was shown at the first ever American Indian International Film Festival (AIFF), one of the longest running international film festivals in the country. It’s produced by The American Indian Film Institute (AIFI), a non-profit media arts center founded in 1979. And its president, Michael Smith, told me "Little Big Man" is one of the films that spawned his personal interest in cinema. It was a "revisionist Western" as they were later coined, a subgenre of western filmmaking that began favoring realism over romanticism.
The American Indian Film Festival has been reenvisioning the role American Indians play in films ever since. The premiere showcase for Native American cinema for the past 32 years, the festival is home to an amazing array of Indian talent, including actors, writers, and directors that promote Indians in roles other than that of Indians, in movies other than westerns, in an environment of professionals passionate about their craft.
Sandra Osawa is one of the many filmmakers returning this year, and her new documentary, "Maria Tallchief," is slated as one of the films opening the festival. Having worked in the industry for over 30 years, Osawa has a philosophy that matches the Institute’s mission: to educate and to empower. "I became interested in film when I went to work as a community action director for my tribe in Neah Bay, Washington," she said. "We organized film night on the reservations and I couldn’t really find any good films to speak of on the Northwest Coast. I did find a few from Canada and ordered them, but overall the pickings were fairly slim."
Maria Tallchief was not just the first Indian, but the first American to attain the title of "prima ballerina," the second highest rank that can be achieved professionally as a dancer. "I heard about Ms. Tallchief while in summer school with a group of other Indian College students. They kept talking about these famous sisters who were ballerinas and of course I had never heard of Indians being in ballet. I spent the past seven years delving more into ballet and doing research as I did not know anything about it," said Osawa. "There had been no documentary on her life, which I found astounding. I like to highlight people who have a strong sense of their own identity and can show us what it’s like to walk in two worlds."
Screening simultaneously on opening night is "Water Flowing Together," directed by Gwendolyn Cates. Also a documentary about a prominent figure in dance, Water Flowing Together examines the life of New York City Ballet dancer Jock Soto. Cates traces his Navajo and Puerto Rican heritage from childhood up until the last two years of his career as a man often praised as "one of the finest male dancers" in the world.
Documentary filmmaking has an obvious place in a community that fights to protect and promote its heritage, but this year the AIFI is screening over 94 films that include shorts, music videos, and, of course, full-length narrative films.
Opening the second part of the festival at the Palace of Fine Arts on Thursday November 8th is the coming of age drama "Four Sheets to the Wind," directed by Sterlin Harjo, which tells the story of Cufe Smallhill. After the death of his father he leaves home to visit his sister in Tulsa, where an unexpected friendship changes his life.
Also screening November 8th, "Gathering Together," by Bay Area director James Fortier, is the story of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe’s first traditional regional potlatch in over a century.
In its 32 years, the AIFI has been around to witness and celebrate a lot of American Indian firsts. Chief Dan George went on to be the first Native American nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. "Smoke Signals," which debuted at Sundance in 1998, was the first film produced from beginning to end with Native American talent, including director Chris Eyre and acclaimed Spokane author Sherman Alexie. It’s also creating the conditions for many future first: It’s now also home to the Tribal Touring Program (TTP), the first program dedicated to bringing digital training workshops to both rural and urban Indian youth. This is an aspect of the AIFI that Smith is obviously passionate about. "Writing, acting, directing and presenting your own work is empowerment to youth, their family and community," he said. "The youth films are premiered at the reservation host site and then included in the fall festival. Many youth from TTP are sponsored by their tribes to come to San Francisco, introduce their work, and witness, connect and network with other youth, emerging and established filmmakers and actors."
The American Indian Film Festival begins November 2th and continues through the 8th at both the Palace of Fine Arts and the Landmark Embarcadero.
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