Emerging voices in Native Film

Institute of American Indian Arts

Morningstar Angeline stars in Razelle Benally’s heartbreaking drama ‘Raven.’

Large-scale motion pictures produced out of big budget studios in Hollywood, and Albuquerque, have slowed to a crawl as a result of the pandemic. But, at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, the wheels of cinematic industry are still rolling.
The Taos Center for the Arts has teamed up with the IAIA’s James Lujan for online screenings of a collection of short films by the school’s graduates and current students. 
It could not be at a more interesting time. The huge changes wrought by the Black Lives Movement, which has forced widespread introspection with regard to institutional racism, sexism and injustice, is already setting fire to entrenched colonial assumptions. 
So, it might seem to some that these Native American film artists are reacting to that wave, but they aren’t. IAIA has for many years been a vanguard for innovation in the arts. Its faculty and staff have always pushed the boundaries and encouraged students to purposely set themselves apart from common industry expectations. 
Where the success of any artistic project in the professional arena has depended on acceptance by corporate executives based on whether it contains universal qualities — namely those a white audience will identify with — these filmmakers are moving forward as though those ideals don’t even exist. And, that’s the way it should be. 
For instance, a few of these films incorporate Native languages with English subtitles, because that is the only way this story can be told. If the audience feels left behind because they don’t get the language or cultural references, so be it. They’ll just have to catch up.
Lujan, who is Chair of Cinematic Arts and Technology at IAIA, is also a filmmaker and playwright, and a Taos Pueblo tribal member. The films he has chosen are a diverse group, ranging from laugh-out-loud comedy to serious documentary to heart wrenching drama. The following are brief descriptions and commentary on each.
“Big Sister Rug” by Dwayne Joe
This straight ahead short documentary focuses on the World’s Largest Hand Woven Navajo Rug and its makers of the tiny isolated community of Chilchinbeto, Arizona. The piece measures 25 feet in length and 39 feet in height. It took 11 Navajo women two years, between 1977-1979, to weave this rug. Only three of the 11 weavers are alive today.
Speaking in Diné, the women describe how Charley Billy, a pastor at the Church if the Nazarene and a longtime council delegate, came up with the idea for the rug and gathered the women of the community together for this large project.
The rug was so big, it eventually took over the local high school gymnasium for its completion. Because its composition incorporates rows of rectangular design elements, some have claimed the rug is actually many separate rugs woven together. The women say that is wrong. It is one continuous piece. 
In the 41 years since its completion, the rug has been exhibited all over the nation and used for some fundraising, but, today, there is concern about its preservation. All of that is skillfully woven together in a brief documentary to music by Carlos Nakai.
“Raven” by Razelle Benally
Skillfully photographed and professionally acted by Morningstar Angeline, the film is a heartbreaking examination of one woman’s fateful decision. 
We first see her riding a motorcycle on a winter’s day. She stops in a forest, hears raven, gets off her bike and walks to a tree. There, she sets down a backpack and takes out a pair of child’s moccasins and a copy of a sonogram. 
Digs a hole, and puts the items in. There is much more, but you’ll have to see what happens next. The mood in this piece is tragic, but there is an undercurrent of hope.
“Legacy” by Mark Lewis
I really enjoyed this cinematic portrait of Mixed Martial Arts Fighter Nikki Lowe. This Seminole Creek and Chickasaw young woman grew up on the Navajo Reservation amid broken families and personal tragedies, not the least of which was a serious drug addiction and the loss of her best friend, her half-brother. 
Then, on top of all that, she went to a doctor one day complaining of bad headaches and discovered she had a pituitary tumor in 2007. She is also a mom. After a seven hour operation, she made it through successfully. By then, she decided to make something of herself and began training for MMA. A warrior and a mother. Nice portrait, but it ends abruptly.
“Exhaust” by Carrie Dada 
In this film, there is a hint of suicide in the first shot. We see a garage, a car is running, title graphic appears out of the car’s exhaust pipe. Then, we dissolve to a young woman at a funeral. A small group of people are gathered, and a preacher asks her to say a few words. The young woman is reluctant. Preacher says he is sorry no one saw the signs. 
But, in a music montage, we learn that the deceased and the young woman had been best friends. They had just been been drinking in that car. She passed out. This is a sad commentary on the concept of fate.
“Deliverance” by Thomas Worcester Jr.
Absolutely hilarious and nicely shot, this movie follows two inept paramedics, Trapper and Kipp, who accept a call to attend a woman giving birth in a kiddie pool in her living room while some guy eats cereal. Lots of adult language in this. Later, they go on another call to aid a guy who has a stuck catheter. Yup, that’s right. The treatment made the guy cry. Stars Alexander Dalen and Corey Hogan are very funny guys.
“Sister” by Jedadiah Richards
This too-brief film, we follow a young woman named Tara as she arrives at home of an older woman named Meredith. Tara is the older sister of a young boy named Trevor who appears to be living with Meredith and her husband Stanley. Tara appears to be there after a six hour trip to take charge of Trevor. The kid doesn’t want to go with Tara, and calls Meredith “mom.” After a dramatic premise with enormous possibilities and questions unanswered, the film ends. I wish it could have gone longer.
“Bear News” by Charine Gonzales
 This is a stop motion animation film about a girl and a stuffed bear watching news about the coronavirus. The bear goes crazy and chases the girl around the house with an ax. It was all a fantasy, or was it?
“They Return” by Lonnie R. Begaye
Nicely realized but with an ending that leaves the audience wanting more, this film follows an older Navajo couple living in an isolated part of the reservation. If you’ve been following the news, you know the Navajo Rez is one of the nation’s worst hot spots for the coronavirus. 
The woman works, takes precautions when she comes home, puts clothing in a bag and takes a shower. The man cooks food, beans and fry bread. They talk of curfew, shortages of PPE, etc. Light go out. Later that evening a knock at the door. The man answers, but woman tells him to not open door, just look through peep hole. 
A title card reads, “They Return, Through our elders. They provide much information. They return. To study what will provide the evolution of tomorrow.”
The Emerging Voices in Native Film program is streaming by donation between Friday (July 17) through July 31 as part of the Taos Center for the Arts Big Screen @ Home series. See below for details on how to watch.
Log back onto the TCA Big Screen @ Home website on Sunday (July 19) at 4 p.m. for a free TCA Film Fans discussion of the film via Zoom. This discussion and Q&A will be hosted by James Lujan of IAIA. This event is free and open to the public.
How does Big Screen TCA @ HOME work? 
  • Go to tcataos.org/calendar/ and click on the movie you want to watch.
  • Then, click on the WATCH MOVIE link. After that, it’s easy! You will “buy a ticket,” and be able to view the film. 
  • Watch on your computer, smartphone, tablet. Or, depending on the film, cast to your Apple TV, Google Chromecast or Roku. 
  • Instructions for how to watch on smart TVs are available at ticket purchase.
Why do movies cost a fee? These offerings are new releases and/or not widely available films. If you were going to see this on a big screen, a single entry at the Taos Community Auditorium costs between $7-$8.50. If there are 2 or more of you, it’s a deal! And even though TCA does not set the ticket price (the digital distributors do), we receive 50 percent of the ticket sales.
Why are time frames for viewing upon purchasing a ticket different? Virtual cinema platforms differ depending on the film’s distributor. The entire film industry is working fast to pivot during this time when social gatherings are prohibited. So, for now, there is no industry standard and different organizations have different ideas for how to “present” films digitally. 
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres in Taos remains closed for the time being in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Until it reopens we will focus on movie reviews available online and through the TCA’s Big Screen @ Home series. 

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