'Swing the door open wider:' New fund encourages indigenous filmmakers

By Joshua Concha
Posted 2/20/20

Taos Pueblo filmmakers interested in developing their media-arts projects are eligible to receive funding through the newly established Senator John Pinto Memorial Filmmakers Fund. Individual Native filmmakers can use funds toward any aspect of production. This can include, film, TV, video games or audio visual projects.

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'Swing the door open wider:' New fund encourages indigenous filmmakers

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Taos Pueblo filmmakers interested in developing their media-arts projects are eligible to receive funding through the newly established Senator John Pinto Memorial Filmmakers Fund. Individual Native filmmakers can use funds toward any aspect of production. This can include, film, TV, video games or audio visual projects.

Through this grant opportunity, Taos Pueblo Natives and members of other Tribal Nations within New Mexico will be afforded the chance to produce their own stories. The grant program is a lasting legacy to Pinto, a Democratic member of the New Mexico Senate from 1977 until his death in 2019, who believed in the importance of supporting the local Native American film community. Pinto understood that in order to change stereotypes of Native Americans, it is necessary to support students interested in filmmaking as well as educational institutions working with Native students in New Mexico.

In an interview for Tempo, New Mexico Film Office Director Todd Christensen explained the impact the fund may have for the local Taos Pueblo community and Native community across the state. Christensen was a Taos resident for several years, and the late artist Ken Price’s studio assistant when he first came to New Mexico. An artist himself, he was appointed to his current position by Governor Michelle Luhan Grisham after years working in the Industry as a location scout.

Tell us a little bit about your background in film.

I’ve been in the film industry for a little over 23 years. I did three years before that for scenic painting, but I started doing locations in 1995 and continued up until May of last year. I did over 30 movies, probably scouted 20 or 30 more, and worked on some great shows. 

Aside from the Sen. John Pinto Memorial Filmmakers Fund, have there been any other programs in other states that you may be aware of?

None that I’m aware of. I think we’re the only state that has done this, thanks to Sen. Pinto, who created the bill and finally got it passed. It’s $100,000 each year to be spent on grants to Native filmmakers who are registered with one of the 19 pueblos (or the tribes) of New Mexico.

Do you see this grant as a career springboard for emerging filmmaking talent from the various tribes and pueblos?

That’s the hope. Like I’ve said to some people in the Native community, ‘At the very least we’re giving Native filmmakers opportunity to swing the door open wider.’

Why do you think it’s important for Native American filmmakers in particular to become more visible in mainstream media?

There’s a lot of people telling stories. They’ve told them in books and then it came to movies, and then television, and then now it’s in streaming content. And I just feel that the Native American community are the original storytellers and there should be efforts made to get them to find a way to tell their stories. But also to find a way to get onto film crews and to make a better living. Because I also know that the unemployment at the pueblos and the tribes is pretty high. I’d like to see that change.

So this fund is perhaps a two-fold mission in creativity and career opportunity?

Yes, absolutely. I see it as both of those things, and my hope is that those opportunities are taken advantage of and also that other people recognize the contributions that Native filmmakers can make.

Knowing what you do about the budgets for large film productions such as those you’ve worked on in the past, what kinds of media projects will get the most benefit from this grant, especially since the initial amount awarded is about $5,000?

Stories these days are being told on iPhones, so there’s a lot of ways to get that content out and to move toward bigger productions. The most important thing is the story and how that story is told. And that can be done on an iPhone or a $150,000 camera. It’s the content that’s important and if the content appeals to somebody in one of the major studios, they’re going to grab that because they’re looking for talent.

If one person from a pueblo or a tribe can do something that opens that door to a studio, then I think it opens the door to other filmmakers to come in. A lot of these kids have dreams, and I hope to find some way to make a difference and help them, inspire them, to tell those stories or to become crew members. That’s just as important to get in the door of a film company and see how a film is made. The grant itself is for filmmakers – so it could be for postproduction. Maybe some have started a film and they’re stuck because they don’t have money to finish the film, to edit.

Have any applications been submitted thus far?

We’ve had a couple of applications and I’ve sent those on to our committee. I’m setting up a deadline which will be in March. The application itself is a treatment or a script, a project in progress, a budget, a list of support or grants received to date, letters of support. A letter of agreement must be signed for those projects that are chosen. Because when you make a movie, you make a budget and you’re responsible for that budget. So this also about a sense of responsibility for those projects they’re working on.

It’s been a long time since Diane Reyna of Taos Pueblo directed the documentary film ‘Surviving Columbus: The Story of the Pueblo People’ and now, nearly 30 years later, how important is it that a new generation of Taos Pueblo film and media artists produce newer content?

The ground is rich and the amount of content that is going out all over the world from Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple, all these different companies, Paramount, Disney – they’re all starting to stream content and what they’re doing is they’re chasing content all over the world and New Mexico has become a key place for this. Netflix has eight studio stages in Albuquerque, so they’re looking for more content, they’re looking for talent and this is an ideal time for pueblo talent to come forward and start to work on projects, sign up for the grant, to work on something.

Is there anything else you’d like to add to this discussion?

I’m getting a list of liaisons at the pueblos and tribes, I’ve got 15 so far, as a point of contact for films so they can also be part of the economic surge that’s happening with filming. Liaisons would know that there’s certain parts of the lands that can be put on film and also which areas cannot be put on film. I’m finding those liaisons who can help film companies.

And I want to start going around to the schools. I want to inspire them to get into the game. There are kids in grade school and in high school at pueblos that are talented and the deal is to give them opportunity. My hats off to Sen. John Pinto, who was 94 when he passed away, and passed this grant at the same age.  He was a World War II Code Talker. An inspired man.

Joshua Concha is an accomplished artist, silversmith, writer and musician. He is Todd Christensen’s son. His mother was the late Wanda Concha of Taos Pueblo. Concha interviewed Christensen for Tempo last week.

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