The Native Voice granted exclusive interview with Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore to talk about the present realities and future possibilities for Native cinema and Sundance’s “Native Forum”
Geoffrey Gilmore is currently the Director of the Sundance Film Festival, held each January in Park City and Salt Lake City, Utah. Known as being the godfather of independent film, Sundance is also home to a unique project called “The Native Forum.” This forum seeks to support Native Filmmakers and showcase their work, and it is a favored part of the festival by Gilmore, who is thoughtful in his analysis of the current state of Native media. He engages in passionate conversation about the Sundance Festival, the Sundance Institute, and the current and future place of The Native Forum at Sundance and in the larger world of major media.
Frank J. King, III: When did you get involved with Native American filmmaking?
Geoffrey Gilmore: I was trying to do Native programming years ago while I was in college at UCLA. It was one of the first very visible programs. So I’ve had a long term interest in trying to see storytelling develop, particularly out of this community. It’s been a struggle.
Lise Balk King: Yes, it has. There are things that are shifting now in the attitudes of the tribes toward media development, out of an understanding of the need. It’s a reactionary thing, it’s coming out of the Abramoff scandal, it’s coming out of the movement to “Get Out The Native Vote.” It’s also about Native media gaining legitimacy and respect, which is necessary.
FJK: The whole tribal thing is like they are like, ten years behind. Which means that there is nobody to teach. Film especially. A lot of the tribes don’t trust the media to begin with, so we have to change that stereotype. To show what media can do for them, what films can do.
GG: I’ve had a lot of experience with different Native filmmakers and different people who are friends of mine over the years. One of the things that I experienced, particularly with the people who are political, was the amount of backstabbing that was going on inside the community. Where you’d have a guy who became a visible force immediately be almost countered by somebody who was trying to not quite tear him down, but not quite allow that whole thing to develop. It was almost these competing kind of energies going on, and that was upsetting to me at different points in time.
LBK: It’s the phenomena we call “fighting over scraps.” It’s what happens when you get people in an isolated community that is unnatural to them, and strange dynamics go on they are starving all of the time for attention, positive feedback, self esteem – all of the things that feed the heart and soul and mind – when something comes in, it becomes a free for all. It becomes very grabby and it’s not necessarily a supportive community.
FJK: There is a way to fix that. The tribes need to get involved.
LBK: There have to be enough resources available so that the bickering stops and everybody just gets back to work.
GG: I completely agree with that. One of the things that bothers me is that I think we do things, but I don’t think that we do enough. I always feel that there is much more that we could be doing. You are sometimes caught between these kinds of pulling agendas.
When I ran the Native program section of the Sundance Festival up until a couple of years ago, my concept of that was basically that it would allow us every year to have this section of Native cinema regardless of whether it was competing with other work…in terms of making it into the competitions. And I’m not suggesting that the work wasn’t good enough…but some of it wasn’t. Some of it was and some of it wasn’t. But you’d still have work there from year to year.
After doing that for a number of years, we made the decision a couple of years ago that, “Okay let’s see if something can just stand on its own. Let’s not put it into a so-called focus section, but let’s look at a way of seeing if it can just simply be integrated into the festival.” And it worked, a little bit. But this year I don’t think it worked at all.
This year, in particular, I feel like we really didn’t have a sufficient program. And so that bothers me. It bothers me because I feel like we must not be doing a good job here. I never believe that you can just simply say that “There’s no work out there.” You know, there’s always work out there. But if you’re always struggling to find work and trying to figure out what fits and how to push things in…? Sometimes it’s a really competitive festival. It’s a question from year-to-year of trying to help build toward that critical mass (of a body of quality work).
LBK: What would you like to see?. If the Sundance team – you , the programmers, Bob Redford – if you could paint this any way you wanted it, what would you envision the Native Forum to be and to do?
GG: I think the Native Forum is different things. What Bird Runningwater is doing this year is work that clearly has to do with getting people together, getting people to talk. I think that one of the problems has been that sense that the community is not integrated into the general Independent Film Community. You have the Independent Community and you have a whole lot of different people in that community that you need relationships with because this ia a relationships business. And, it’s always been a relationships business. And if you are not connected with it, you end up having to work just isolated and on your own all of the time.
Part of what I would hope is our agenda on an annual basis is to achieve some of that integration. That’s one of the reasons that we stopped the focus on a specialized programming section. It was the idea that, “No, it’s time to integrate, it’s time to make it part of the bigger picture.” And, again, I have faith that that it is going to work on different levels. Whether it’s Chris Eyre or Sherman Alexie, or different filmmakers, as in when Heather (Rae) was in competition last year with her film on John Trudell (Heather Rae, Cherokee, served as programmer of the Native Forum at Sundance, 1995 – 2001). There’s a whole range of different things you can do. But it’s still that you get bothered when you feel that any given year you feel that there is not enough of a representation. And I look at a lot of work.
FJK: What do you think is lacking in the Native community that is contributing to this void of good projects?
GG: I always feel that one of the major issues in any kind of independent production is a lack of skilled producers. The storytellers are there. The acting talent is there. The directing talent oftentimes is there, for different reasons. But the producers, the people that get the work onto the screen, you can’t find them. And that’s a talent that you need to develop with people. It’s true in every community, and it’s true generally across the board in the independent arena.
When Bird has brought different parties to our Producers Conference over the years, I have felt that was important, again as a way of making connections. You’ve got to be able to get in doors. You’ve got to be able to reach out and get financed or have ideas of where you can go for that. And you don’t want to be simply marginalized in the old, “Well lets go talk to the CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting), lets talk to Frank Blythe (Director, Native American Public Telecommunications) and that’s it and that’s the only person you get to talk to. It’s almost like that’s a purposeful marginalization. It’s almost like that’s the way they dealt with it. And for me that wasn’t sufficient, there are other things to do.
LBK: And the schools aren’t teaching it either, for the most part. Not the creative or technical media training, nor media literacy. The creation of media is still seen as a far away dream for most people living in isolated, economically dry communities.
GG: What about the tribes? Is the explosion of gaming revenues going to help with the film industries?
LBK: There is there mentality with some Native filmmakers when they go to these casino tribes for money that they say – I’m Native, I should get money from you to make my film. Again, this goes back to the need for skilled producers… you have to ask, “Where is your business plan, where is your full script, where is your resume that shows that you actually have what it takes to can take this thing to completion, or who are the people you have lined up to fill in and help you with the parts that you need?
GG: There is some feeling I have about the need to develop that infrastructure, that kind of development of smart people who are able to make the connections, with the storytellers.
I’m happy to say this for public consumption – there are a lot of filmmakers who are really flaky, that is who they are. That’s almost their nature. You need other people that are able to understand markets, distribution outlets, companies and business plans. These are real things. You can’t just always argue, “Oh, well, none of that’s important because this is just a work of passion.” No. It’s very significant. It’s as significant as anything else. You’ve got to be able to get into that world. Otherwise this whole thing becomes almost philanthropic. It’s almost like it’s some marginality thing.
Its again about critical mass. I look at acting talent, and it’s there…good looking acting talent that could be cast in a lot of different places. And you look at directors, it’s there. What do you always need? The same thing everybody else needs. Developed scripts (good scripts always need development), and good production partners or producers that are able to put things together.
LBK: Is it possible to bring together those non-Indian professional film, people who can facilitate the creation of Native projects – not as the usual “mentors,” but as partners?
GG: We’ve certainly talked about it. And maybe it’s time that we figure out ways in which that can be done.
LBK: This is a field that takes a lot of resources, projects take a lot of money to produce. The confidence in the filmmaker’s ability to produce has to be there for them to get funded. It’s like any other business where you are trying to find funding sources, investors, and put a project together.
GG: I don’t want to give money to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing on any level. I just don’t. You don’t want to watch money burn up, you want it to have an impact. So when neophytes come into the office, you try to figure out, “Do they really have a sense of how to make this work, or is there somebody that they are relying on who can do this?” And, again, usually the excuses and also the reality is that you want someone there who is able to deliver the project.
What bothers me about what little I know about Native production – and I probably know a lot more than a lot of people, but I certainly don’t know enough – is that there were power players that seemed to be comfortable in the niche that they were in, and things just stayed that way. Nothing moved to the next step. What Sundance is good at, and I give my colleagues credit for this, is the development of individual artists. That is what they are best at, developing Chris (Eyre) and developing Sherman (Alexie), and having different artists come into the program that Bird is working with .
What Sundance has not been got at is as an organizing force within the breadth of all of the communities. I think Heather (Rae) did that in different ways on more of a sporadic basis than what we are doing here. But Bird is very much is trying to do different efforts, particularly with other (indigenous) nations and that works. But that is a complicated thing, because some could argue that this is a diversion of resources and attention.
Being self-critical, I wish I could see more results. Results for me are being able to point to “that film, that film, and that film” in the market place, this connection, that actor moving to there, that crossover going on, this producer saying they want to see Native material. Well then, let’s find the Native screenwriters who can just give the material to the established producers. Because I don’t want to talk bull, I’ve been doing this for too many years. I don’t want to talk about starting from scratch every single time. I want to feel like, “Okay, good. We’ve got things going on.”
Bird is really good at helping develop individual artists, at doing outreach to a number of different people. There’s more still to do that I feel like isn’t being done. Maybe it’s not our province, maybe it is. I’m also nervous about our role in all of this. I don’t want to be the “big Sundance” sweeping in to kind of give all of the answers here. We don’t have all of the answers. We have some of the answers. But we don’t have all of the answers.
LBK: We’ve done a lot to promote the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum. We give it coverage every year to say, “We think this is an important thing.” People are saying that we focus a lot on arts and entertainment. We focus on where we think the needs are. And we feel that there are critical needs in media and communications. And the reason that we have done the Sundance promotion is because we sense the possibilities. It’s not because we think it is one hundred perfect there…but imagine the possibilities. This is a huge opportunity for Native America. You guys are a big brand name. Everybody knows who Robert Redford is. Everybody knows who Sundance is. You guys are the Nike of the film world. So, there’s a certain amount of cache and respect that comes along with that.
The Sundance Native Forum can a motivator for people who are feeling trapped in their community, trapped by the limitations of resources and access to education, and having a vision of creating something, and going, “How the hell do I get from here to there?”
Sundance needs to decide if that’s even your agenda, if you want to go in and help to map out that road. If you do, that’s an amazing thing. If you don’t, that’s okay because maybe it’s not your job to fill in those blanks.
GG: I think the agenda has always been that we don’t see ourselves as the people who should be in that role of mapping out that big picture. We see ourselves as being in the role of helping to develop artists. I’ve always thought that what the festival does that is interesting is that it opens up that sense of the possible, that what you do is create opportunity and inspire.
If you’ve never seen a Native work before, or if you have the image of Native work being “one kind of a thing,” then you start to see, “Wait a second, these are really different kinds of movies, these are really different kinds of storytellers, these are really different ideas.” You don’t “niche” it all. It’s not all one box, Native storytelling doesn’t all come out of one box. Well, of coarse it doesn’t. So, you start to see a range of different things. And the inspirational qualities for me are the idea that the storytellers start to see that sense of the possible of, “Oh, that’s something I can do.”
Again, do I feel that our agenda is clear? You guys are probably right. I don’t think that our agenda is clear. And I feel that maybe that s something that we have to reexamine and think about again.
LBK: Sundance is inspiring because you can find so much here that is connected to who you are and what you do, even if it is not directly about you. The stories, the films are about crossing over assumed boundaries, about making connections that are more human and universal. On that end, I can see how Bird feels compelled to include other indigenous people in the Native Forum category.
“Crossing Arizona,” the film about border crossing issues, premiered here, and it just happens to be about an issue that is directly effecting the Tohono O’odham Nation. It was not part of the Native Forum because it is not-Native made. One of the main people in the film is a tribal member. This film was directly relevant to Native America.
GG:What would you like to see happen?
FJK: We have to give our young people a venue to learn how to use media to be storytellers, to learn how to shoot film, to bring their creative ideas to fruition.
I’ve had Native leaders ask me, “What does something like this cost?” And I answer, “Whatever the tribes are willing to put into it.”
Because we are not just investing in a film, we are investing in a cultural history. We are investing in the voices of our nations. We are investing in the preservation of our people. And we appreciate that Sundance is willing to be a part of this investment.
GG: I would love to strategize about how to get to that next move, about how to see where that next stage takes us.
…to be continued…
Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore (L) and Frank J. King, III, Publisher of The Native Voice (R) meet at the Festival in Park City, Utah, January 25, 2006 to discuss the Native Forum and the future of Native media.