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March 30, 2015

Humanity and Complexity: "The Navajo Times" previews "Diné Spotlight"

The Navajo Times published an excellent review by Alysa Landry of "Dine Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film," a public program at the museum in New York April 9 and 11. Subscribers can read the original article online. For nonsubscribers, the Navajo Times has generously given the museum permission to reprint Ms. Landry's review.


Humanity and Complexity: ‘Diné Spotlight’ to show accurate picture of what it really means to be Native

By Alysa Landry

NEW YORK CITY – When it comes to movies, much can be said about aspect ratios and picture quality, but regardless of a movie screen’s height and width, the picture itself is still flat.

That’s especially true when it comes to most mainstream films about American Indians, according to Angelo Baca, a Navajo filmmaker and graduate student at New York University.

The National Museum of the American Indian is trying to change that with a two-day fi lm screening featuring two full-length films and 17 shorts.

The free event, “Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film,” runs April 9 and 11 at the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York. A total of 14 Navajo filmmakers will have their work shown, with topics ranging from love stories to science fiction to the gritty, hard-hitting stories of modern life on the reservation.

The combination, Baca said, should leave spectators with a more accurate picture of what it means to be Native.

“These films bring complexity and dimension to an otherwise one-dimensional and conflated representation of Native Americans,” Baca said. “They cover a wide range of things that people don’t necessarily associate with Native Americans. They show how much humanity and complexity we have as people.”

Baca, who is pursuing a doctorate degree in anthropology, will moderate a discussion held after the screenings. He believes the event will help bust stereotypes – especially for an audience at the museum, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution.

“A lot of museum-goers are expecting a certain kind of film,” he said. “Navajo filmmakers are doing great work and breaking expectations, breaking a lot of rules. They are going beyond the stereotype that Indians belong in documentaries or behind glass.”

In this scene from Sydney Freeland's feature-length film "Drunktown's Finest," a rebellious Navajo man clashes with his Army recruiter. (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution) 

Diné Spotlight opens April 9 with a screening of Sydney Freeland’s acclaimed film, “Drunktown’s Finest.” It continues April 11 with a series of short films, followed by the New York premiere of “Chasing the Light,” by Blackhorse Lowe. Both feature-length filmmakers will participate in discussions after their movies play.

Organizers are expecting a crowd of 250 or more, said Cynthia Benitez, film and video center programmer for the museum. The screening coincides with the ongoing “Glittering World” exhibit, which showcases the jewelry of the Yazzie family of Gallup, N.M.

The two events together allow the museum to shine a spotlight on the Navajo Nation and encourage conversation about its modern culture, Benitez said. The museum is also bringing some of the filmmakers to the exhibit, offering visitors the unique opportunity to “meet the people behind the objects.”

“You can’t tell these stories through artifacts,” she said. “When you have contemporary films, it gives us another educational aspect to offer visitors who don’t realize that the Navajo are not just turquoise jewelry or ancient people. With films and filmmakers here, people can ask them questions directly.”

The films selected explore themes that resonate with the Navajo people – and with humanity as a whole, Benitez said. That includes the struggles of a transgender woman in Freeland’s film, Drunktown’s Finest,” and suicide and drug addiction in Lowe’s film, “Chasing the Light.”

The films represent a natural progression from traditional storytelling, said Freeland, who grew up on the reservation and went to film school because she wanted to tell stories.

“You have all the traditional art forms – painting, weaving, pottery, silversmithing – that are all forms of storytelling,” she said. “Filmmaking combines all the other art forms into one. It’s another form of storytelling.”

Although gritty and sometimes controversial, “Drunktown’s Finest” shatters stereotypes and presents three-dimensional characters, Freeland said.

“I wanted to tell a story about the people and places I knew and give them a chance to be represented on screen,” she said. “I wanted to show how a reservation is a diverse and dynamic place. It was about giving people a chance to be heard and seen on screen, as they are, as human beings with flaws.”

When filming “Chasing the Light,” Lowe wanted to capture “everyday life for the 21st century Navajo man.”

“It’s just the usual Navajo type of living,” he said. “It’s just straight-up reality. It’s depression, heartache, drugs, friends. And it’s a comedy because all the funniest things are always the darkest thing ever.”

“Chasing the Light” is Lowe’s second feature-length film. He’s also showing a short film during the screening.

Nanobah Becker's film "The 6th World," in which Navajo astronauts journey to Mars, is part of "Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film." (Courtesy photo, Smithsonian Institution)

The showcase will include 16 additional short films shown in two sessions. Nanobah Becker will show three of her shorts, including a music video starring Navajo ballet dancer Jock Soto and a science fiction film about Navajo people on Mars. She’s looking forward to showing her films to a New York audience.

“In a city like New York, the exposure of Native films and Navajo culture is very limited,” she said. “It’s like the end of a journey to be able to show something to an audience and to feel like you’ve affected people in a certain way.”

With 14 filmmakers’ work showing in New York and countless others making films on the reservation, Becker believes the Navajo people are establishing a cinematic record that is unique to the tribe.

“We are creating our national cinema, just like any other country,” she said “We have radio and print, but this is the next frontier. We’re contributing to something bigger.”

Other filmmakers use existing footage to explore history. Shonie de la Rosa’s film “Yellow Dust” uses archived film footage of nuclear testing and traditional stories to compare two kinds of yellow powder: uranium and corn pollen.

The film took off in Europe long before it gained popularity in the United States, de la Rosa said. Although it’s more than a decade old, he’s pleased it’s making an appearance in New York.

“It’s a short film, it’s experimental,” he said. “It’s kind of something I just threw together, but it’s taken on a journey of its own.”

Another theme apparent in some of the films is future possibilities, said Teresa Montoya, a moderator for the screening and a doctoral student in anthropology at New York University. Several of the filmmakers use their medium to explore “forward-facing” ideas, including Becker’s film about a Navajo space program.

“It’s powerful to use creation stories to not just think about the past, but also the future,” Montoya said. “I think visual production gives Navajo the opportunity to write and dictate their own histories.” Baca calls this phenomenon “visual sovereignty.”

“We’re pushing all the boundaries in terms of making independent films,” he said. “This emerges as cultural and visual sovereignty. Everyone who does these projects does it all on their own, from beginning to end. Making film is an act of sovereignty.”

The other filmmakers whose work is included in the screening are Klee Benally, Princess Benally, Christi Bertelsen, Christopher Cegielski, Sarah del Seronde, Melissa Henry, Daniel Edward Hyde, Bennie Klain,Velma Kee Craig and Donavan Seschillie.

For more information on Diné Spotlight: A Showcase of Navajo Film, visit http://nmai.si.edu/explore/film-media or call 212-514-3737.

© 2015 Navajo Times. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from the Navajo Times


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