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9 Native Filmmakers You Should Know

A Native renaissance is in its beginning stages in the film industry.
Elle Maija Tailfeathers Blood Quantum
By  · Published on November 26th, 2020

Media doesn’t have the best track record with Native representation. Many classic films feature white actors in red face, modern narratives rely on the white savior trope, and violence against Indigenous women has been normalized throughout cinema history.

Thankfully, a renaissance is happening within the film industry and Native creatives everywhere are getting the chance to reclaim their stories. Here are just nine of the many talented filmmakers from Indian Country to keep track of as they explore the right to storytelling and authenticity.

Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee)

If you’ve never been to Oklahoma, it’s okay, just watch one of Sterlin Harjo’s films. Each showcases the beauty and Native diversity that makes up the former Indian Territory. His directorial debut, Goodnight Irene, is a short film that looks at complicated issues of Native existence and generational difference. These topics are subtly explored as three characters interact in an Indian Health Services waiting room. Since then, Harjo has been unstoppable as he continues to tackle the meaning of Native experience in Oklahoma.

His newest release is a documentary, Love and Fury, which follows Native musicians from various backgrounds. His director’s note about the film states, “Native art has been shackled to history by a false vision of what Native people are through the settler gaze of our current reality. I wanted to make something bold and in your face, directly putting up a finger to the shackles of the art world and historic representation of our people.” The documentary is currently making its festival rounds.

Just this past September, Harjo filmed the pilot to a new series, Reservation Dogs, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. The new show utilizes Native creatives in front of and behind the camera in a new way, showing Indigenous youth just being teenagers. While Harjo’s experience growing up in Oklahoma will play a huge part in the series, his friend Taika Waititi is also involved with the project, bringing some touches from his Māori upbringing.

Erica Tremblay (Seneca-Cayuga)

Erica Tremblay’s short film Little Chief is a small but powerful piece of cinema. The script was submitted, chosen, workshopped, and created through the Sundance Indigenous Filmmaker’s Lab before debuting at the Sundance Film Festival this past January. Little Chief is still making festival rounds and has screened at almost forty festivals internationally, including AFI Fest

In Little Chief, Tremblay shows a moment in the life of Sharon (Lily Gladstone), a teacher who has to cope with her own everyday demons while helping a specific student, Bear (Julian Ballentyne), face his own. This glimpse into the life of the characters allows the audience to see the beauty and complexity of community that exists within the Seneca-Cayuga Nation of Oklahoma. The setting is where Tremblay grew up, and her fondness for her people, especially matriarchs, is evident.

What is next for this blossoming filmmaker? Tremblay recently announced her feature script entitled Fancy Dance was selected for the Sundance Indigenous Intensive. Fancy Dance is a twist on the road trip story as a young aunt kidnaps her niece from a non-Native foster home in hopes of keeping what’s left of the family together.

Kyle Bell (Creek-Thlopthlocco Tribal Town)

In 2014, Kyle Bell bought a camera. Now, he is being mentored by cinema legend Spike Lee. How did Bell jumpstart his filmmaking career? Through dedication and drive.

Just as this young filmmaker was learning the ins and outs of making movies, the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation were gaining traction. Bell captured moments from his stay at Standing Rock and created Defend the Sacred, a short documentary that showcases moments at the NoDAPL demonstrations.

Bell continued to work in capturing real life by working with FireThief Productions on Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People, a documentary-style television show. With Osiyo, Bell was awarded multiple honors for his short documentary focused on the Cherokee-Kiowa NCAA basketball player Lindy Waters III.

Bell’s love for basketball is also featured in his yet to be released short film Spirits. This project was selected for the Sundance Native Filmmaker Lab and tells the story of a young Creek kid who has to choose between staying home with his family and chasing his dream of playing college ball. Bell’s work on Spirits impressed Lee and the two continue to bond over their love for the sport of basketball.

Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Inuit)

According to her Twitter bio, Alethea Arnaquq-Baril is a “documentary filmmaker, Inuit traditional tattoo enthusiast,” and “Inuit seal hunting activist.” This simply sums up her work, however, while the intricacies that make up each of these identities are intricate and layered.

Arnaquq-Baril often takes from her own experiences, even becoming a character in her own documentaries, to show the complexities that make up her cultural traditions. Many customs for various Native groups have been lost through assimilation or shame. In her 2011 film Tunniit: Retracing the Lines of Inuit Tattoos, the director explores the history of traditional Inuit tattooing while debating whether to reclaim this action for herself.

Angry Inuk, her 2016 project, tackles the controversial topic of seal hunting. Many animal rights groups have attacked Indigenous seal hunters for decades, stating that their ancestral customs are inhumane. Arnaquq-Baril humanizes the act by showing the community, land, and the ways of life that are often left out of the rhetoric surrounding Inuit seal hunting.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blackfoot-Sami)

Actor, director, and writer Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is comfortable anywhere on set. Her most-known work is the 2016 film The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which she stars in as well as co-directed and co-wrote with Kathleen Hepburn. Basically, Tailfeathers is all about collaboration.

After studying acting in Vancouver, Tailfeathers decided to return to school to study the art of cinema. The first project she wrote and directed was Bloodland in 2011. This short experimental film is a graphic depiction that shows the parallels of the extractive fossil fuel industry on the land and body. Tailfeathers has also dabbled in documentary filmmaking, releasing c’sna?m: The city before the city in 2017. The themes of colonial damage are constant in the works that she creates.

Tailfeathers also balances her filmmaking with her on-screen performances. As mentioned, she acted alongside newcomer Violet Nelson in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and was one of the female characters in Jeff Barnaby’s zombie horror film, Blood Quantum. Tailfeathers also worked on Danis Goulet’s newest project, Night Raiders.

Danis Goulet (Cree-Métis)

It is common to hear Indigenous communities mention the post-apocalyptic world that already surrounds them. Forced assimilation, removal, separation, and other consequences of colonization are just some of the awful experiences that generations of Native families have had to endure. Danis Goulet takes this to the next level by exploring Native science fiction.

Her short Wakening breaks boundaries, creating a new subgenre of Indigenous science fiction for the screen. Wesakechak (Sarah Podemski) attempts to survive in the midst of a war zone setting. She runs into a decrepit movie theater filled with darkness and death. Inside, she finds the Weetigo creature she hopes to utilize against the militarized force that attacks outside.

Goulet’s next project is a feature-length film entitled Night Raiders, which is in its final stages of post-production. This debut will also explore Indigenous science fiction themes and is set to star Amanda Plummer and reconnect the two leads from The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson. As of now, Night Raiders is rumored to be released in early 2021.

Sydney Freeland (Navajo)

Sydney Freeland is another creative who got their start through the Sundance Native Film Lab. In fact, she was motivated by the lack of authentic Native representation in film and media and finally picked up a camera when she was twenty-four years old. Her first feature, Drunktown’s Finest, in 2014, tells the story of three young Navajo characters who are trying to escape the reservation with different emotional baggage.

After that, Freeland made the Netflix original film Deidra & Laney Rob a Train and directed the dramatic web series Her Story, which follows two transgender characters in their day to day life. In an interview with High Country News, Freeland stated that her identity as a Native American as well as transgender is what attracts her to projects that focus on marginalized characters.

Recent news states Freeland’s next endeavor will be with Ava Duvernay: a pilot for a Native family drama entitled Sovereign, which has been greenlit by NBC. If picked up, this will become the first broadcast television show to focus on Native Americans.

Tracey Deer (Mohawk)

Tracey Deer’s work surrounds the topic of identity, specifically when it relates to her own Mohawk community. Her early work focused on reality through documentary and includes her 2005 film Mohawk Girls, which was later turned into a scripted television series. Her other nonfiction titles include Kanien’keha:ka: Living the Language and Club Native, both of which break down different aspects of Mohawk existence and resilience.

Deer made her fictional feature film debut with Beans at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. This coming of age moment during the Oka Crisis of 1990 is based on the filmmaker’s own experiences. According to her website, Deer was twelve years old when the Oka Crisis happened and the strong emotions from that event have fueled her passion to bridge the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

Beans was a hit at TIFF and was the second runner-up for the People’s Choice Award. Deer was also presented with the special honor of the TIFF Emerging Talent Award. Joana Vicente of the festival stated, “Tracey is an authentic, leading Indigenous voice globally and one the industry should watch closely.”

Jeff Barnaby (Mi’gMaq)

Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Jeff Barnaby’s 2013 feature release, changed the Native filmmaking landscape. It follows Aila (Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), a fully developed badass who is ready to beat down the fences that continued colonization has attempted to build around her. Jacobs was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for her performance, and Barnaby proved his skills with a camera and a script.

Barnaby’s most recent film puts an Indigenous twist on the zombie film. Blood Quantum made its debut during Midnight Madness at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and was made widely available via Shudder earlier this year during the COVID-19 outbreak. The eerie parallels between what’s been happening all around the world and what unfolds on screen make Blood Quantum a perfect watch for any and all horror fans. Plus, the cast includes Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, and Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs which should be motivation for everyone to sit through the entire runtime.

Although little is known about what Barnaby’s got up his sleeve for his next project, it’s sure to be a visual masterpiece as well as a commentary on modern colonial existence. His vision as well as his storytelling is evident in these two films. Blood Quantum is not the last we have heard from Jeff Barnaby.

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Shea Vassar is a ᏣᎳᎩ film nerd & huge fan of coffee, cats, and the OKC Thunder.