San Francisco Peaks


Native Americans shine in a new world of film

Deborah Nicol
The Desert Sun
March 13, 2007

"An amazing eye-opening, spirit-opening celebration of life."
That's what programmer Thomas Ethan Harris has to say about the Native American Film Festival and Cultural Weekend that starts Wednesday in Palm Springs.

The event, held for the sixth year, is hosted by the Agua Caliente Cultural Museum.

Harris should be well aware of the films' effects after whittling down more than 350 submissions to seven impressive features for the festival. Despite this rigorous selection process, none of the films has received theatrical distribution. Harris feels it is the festival's responsibility "to show people that there is this cinema out there, and it deserves to be seen in a broader capacity."

Meaning everyone is invited to the party. Not only is this a festival by and for American Indians, but for those who are unaware of the talents within this population.

It helps to start with a little history. The festival's opening night film is "One Dead Indian," the true story of a peaceful protest gone terribly wrong. Created for Canada's CTV, the film may be less polished than larger productions but does not fail to deliver the story passionately. An atrocious chronicle of unchecked police brutality, the tragedy deserves explanation.

This film is paired with "Conversion," a short by Nanobah Becker. Harris asserts that this is the hottest short on the festival circuit, and Becker is a breakthrough director to watch.

"The Canary Effect" expands upon the history of injustices received by Native groups and is an impressive debut endeavor by directors Robin Davey and Yellow Thunder Woman. There is no sugarcoating here, no softening of the blow; the facts are harsh and dealt as mercilessly as they were inflicted. This film will leave no question that there are tremendous social concerns that need to be addressed.

In contrast, "When Your Hands Are Tied" is Mia Bocella Hartle's uplifting documentary about exceptional people who have learned to integrate their Native culture with modern trends. From rap artists to punk rockers, skateboarders to break dancers, these people realize there is no shame in life on the reservation.

"Native young people never see themselves reflected as positive members of today's society; they are virtually invisible," states Hartle. "(The individuals in this film) are inspirational examples of how you can maintain traditional identity, customs and beliefs."
Hartle proudly claims, "I have been told that the film is medicine and is healing some of the youth." Boccella Productions grants copies of this not-for-profit film to anyone who will use it to motivate individuals and their communities.

The film is perfectly coupled with the short, "SuperFly Filmmaking," about a group of kids who create a film within 36 hours based on a script by Sherman Alexie.

Alexie will be attending the revival screening of the critically acclaimed film "Smoke Signals," based on his book, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." This landmark Native American production received national theatrical release and became proof that small budgets can produce complex and intriguing stories.

Alexie will be joined by director Chris Eyre and star Evan Adams.

When asked if there was a film that Harris knew had to be included in the festival, he decisively answered, "'The Velvet Devil,' 100 percent."

Leaving her Native community for the lights and promise of the 1930s Toronto jazz scene, Velvet shuts herself off from family and heritage. Andrea Menard not only performs the titular character of this one-woman show, she wrote the stage play and every song in it.

"Being a M├ętis, or Canadian 'half-breed,' I've always had challenges being comfortable in my own skin. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was working through that family shame (of hiding who we were) and was determined to find pride in who I am," says Menard.

Harris wants the audience to leave the festival with one thing above all: "Empathy - a certain empathy towards people that you think are 'other.' The Native American culture is glorious and beautiful."

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