"Drunktown" a personal matter | ParkRecord.com

"Drunktown" a personal matter

Jay Meehan, The Park Record

"I was taught art is what connects us to the earth, to each other, and ultimately, to our Creator. This is where I come from. This is my indigenous life."

Sydney Freeland

Filmmaker Sydney Freeland, whose first feature film, "Drunktown’s Finest," screens beginning Saturday in the NEXT category at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, first heard her hometown of Gallup, N.M., referred to as "Drunktown, USA" during an ABC "20/20" newsmagazine broadcast while she was in elementary school.

Throughout the years, the characterization stuck with her and, in many ways, stuck with the town. As a Navajo Reservation girl, she had seen the results of poverty and alcoholism and high unemployment up close. She had also learned the traditional ways of her people including the concepts of song, painting and storytelling as prayer.

So, once she gravitated toward writing and filmmaking, she understood that this was a multi-layered story that needed to be told to the wider world. "My teachers always told me to write what you know," Freeland told The Park Record during a recent phone interview from her home in Los Angeles, "and this was a story I knew."

"As a child, art was a part of everyday life. I was raised to believe that it was not just for enjoyment and entertainment purposes," she added. Of course, storytelling is one thing and translating it to a screenplay can be quite something else. "Screenwriting is the hardest, most challenging part of the process, also the most rewarding."

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Attempting to capture the wide diversity of the reservation within the lives of only a few characters proved somewhat problematic at first for Freeland. "But when I quit trying to impose myself on the screenplay and allowed the story to tell itself, it all began to fall into place.

Sundance has always been the most "Indigenous-friendly" of all the film festivals and Freeland had little trouble gaining entry to the Institute Labs to workshop her film project. "First I brought my concept to the 2009 Native Lab and, after gaining much insight and encouragement, got invited to the Screenwriter’s Lab to workshop the actual script."

From there, they brought her into the Director’s Lab where she was able to continue to hone the craft end of the cinematic art with some of the most astute, savvy and generous filmmakers that just seem to abound in the Sundance Institute’s lab network. It was around this point that Robert Redford became personally interested in the project and requested to come onboard as an executive producer.

Having come from a world where one is surrounded by art, where, oftentimes, the only means of generating income is to create artwork to sell to tourists, Sydney Freeland has always found it natural to express herself with imagination.

But once her travels around the globe exposed her to the innate creativity of indigenous cultures elsewhere, her appreciation for the beauty and power of her own art achieved a deeper understanding – a perspective she would bring to the filming of "Drunktown’s Finest,"

"We had an amazing casting director," she continued, "and of the 36 roles in the film, we were able to cast 32 native actors, 18 of which were Navajo." This was obviously an immensely important component for her. Shooting it where it unfolds also carried significance. One-third ended up being shot in Gallup and the rest in Santa Fe and Espanola.

"Until now, my Western artistic life and my indigenous life have been two worlds that I’ve kept separate. However, I see something special happening when they come together and I see my filmmaking as a means to bring about this marriage. I feel ‘Drunktown’s Finest’ is a good example of this."

"Drunktown’s Finest" is one of 11 titles in the NEXT category at the Sundance Film Festival and will screen:

Saturday, Jan. 18, at 3:00 p.m. at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City.

Sunday, Jan. 19, at 6:00 p.m. at the Temple Theatre, Park City.

Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 6:45 p.m. at Broadway Centre Cinema 3, Salt Lake City.

Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 6 p.m. at the Sundance Resort Screening Room, Sundance Resort.

Friday, Jan. 24, at 5:30 p.m. at the Prospector Square Theatre, Park City.