Indigenous subjects, universal stories
"I didn’t grow up thinking ‘I want to be a Native American filmmaker,’ I grew up thinking ‘I wanted to be a filmmaker,’" panelist and filmmaker Sterlin Harjo says.
"Four Sheets to the Wind" director Harjo and the four other filmmaker-panelists featured at Thursday’s Sundance Film Festival panel, "The Burden of Representation," said they find telling their stories a kind of balancing act.
While the panelists expressed pride in their varied and unique backgrounds including a Maori New Zealander, a Filipino who is also a homosexual and a Native American from the Navajo tribe they aspired to be filmmakers. Period.
"It’s our film that they should look at, not our background," said Auraeus Solito, who was born and raised by a mother of an indigenous tribe in the Phillipines. "We should be judged on our merits as filmmakers."
While Solito has been "openly gay" throughout most of his lifetime, he found when he spoke to Western reporters, who he had assumed were progressive, immediately he was labeled. He makes films about gay Filipinos, he said, but he also aims to make films that might someday rival the artistry and impact of his idols and predecessors like French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut.
As panelist "Eagle vs. Shark" director Taika Waititi noted, those classified indigenous filmmakers like himself are "both blessed and cursed": on the one hand, those who choose to make movies set outside of the mainstream feel saddled with the responsibility to tell a story about their cultural heritage; on the other, they seek to tell stories about universal issues that will appeal to a broader audience.
"My film’s not about race issues, it’s a romantic comedy," said Waititi. "It’s a strange, weird, romance that just happens to be from New Zealand and just happens to be a Maori film."
Waititi is half-Caucasian and says he was born "fighting with himself." He finds the best stories he writes come from day-to-day life and not from a one-sided reflection on what it means to be Maori.
Like others on the panel, Waititi avoids mentioning the issue of race and racism in dialogue in an effort handle his background with subtlety.
"In my film there are half-cast kids and they’re treated as really normal because it is normal," he says. "I supposed by the pure fact that I’m Maori, the decisions I make and the way I write come from my background. Yes it is a Maori film, but it’s not even once mentioned."
Panel mediator and filmmaker Heather Rae noted that like Waititi, she was also mixed, and that instead of a conflict, she views it as "a marriage."
"My mom’s an Indian and my dad’s a cowboy," she said, adding, "Sometimes, I just think, ‘it’s 2007,’ but these issues somehow continue to exist The fact of the matter is, all people come from tribal roots. It is a Universal human experience."
The panel also agreed it was about time that indigenous filmmakers take themselves less seriously.
"Rather than reflect on my culture, I would like to reflect experiences we have day to day," Waititi explained. "I think Maori are a hilarious people who often misrepresent themselves in film It’s a serious issue, but [filmmakers] often take themselves too seriously. There’s always some like old woman singing in the background."
Waititi aspires to create a New Zealand cinema that can stand independently, but says the country loses a lot of talent to what he calls "the brain drain," New Zealanders moving out of the country to become successful. He notices the drive to be a success also can change the focus of those filmmakers to make commercial films that have very little to do with the filmmaker’s unique background, citing "Legally Blonde" as an example.
"I can’t write ‘Legally Blonde’ because I don’t think I could write anything that I’m not familiar with and I’m not familiar with white girls who want to go to law school," he said.
Waititi stressed that it is important for indigenous people to tell their own stories, rather than letting others tell their stories for them.
"The white world is running out of stories big time," he warned the audience. "Indigenous people need to tell their stories before they get stolen and that’s the last thing we as indigenous people have left that’s not stolen: our stories."
However, he admits he can relate to those who seek mainstream success already he can feel the tug to conform at Sundance.
"I just got an agent in Hollywood and it worries me," he confessed. "That means I’m half-way to hell."
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