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Native Crossroads Film Festival Hosts Prominent Women Filmmakers And Scholars

Mar 5, 2015

The Native Crossroads Film Festival and Symposium kicks off this evening. Native women’s visions and voices is the guiding theme for the 2015 film selections and speakers.

“This year, we wanted to look at stories that represent a diverse range of experiences and perspectives, and in particular the challenges and struggles that native women face. These are stories of perseverance, resilience and overcoming those odds. They are really powerful in articulating the role of women in their communities and their cultures, and as leaders in those communities,” said film festival curator Kristin Dowell.

The first feature film of the weekend, Rhymes for Young Ghouls tells the story of a young Mohawk woman, played by actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, who is sent to a residential school on a fictional reserve in the 1970s. She seeks revenge against Popper, the school's abusive Indian agent director.  Made by Mi'gMaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby of Montreal, Ghouls was named in the top ten Canadian films of 2013 by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). The film screens tonight at 8:30 p.m., after the festival's opening songs performed by SNAG, the Native American fraternity at OU.

Dowell said audiences do not often see young native women in strong protagonist roles in mainstream media.

"This actress is a powerhouse. The art direction is impeccable. Jeff Barnaby has a strong cinematic vision. Ghouls has a very unique aesthetic,” Dowell said.

The visual media scholar worked in the film and media department at the National Museum of the American Indian, where she began to focus her scholarship on Canadian First Nations filmmakers. Dowell has taught with the OU Anthropology Department since 2008, and has worked on Native Crossroads since its 2013 inception.

Comanche leader Ladonna Harris planned to attend the festival. She had to cancel because of a family wedding, but she’ll be on the big screen in Ladonna Harris: Indian 101, the 2014 documentary produced and directed by her niece Julianna Brannum. Harris is a national leader who has been active in civil rights, environmental, peace and women’s movements for over 40 years. The documentary includes archival footage from Harris’ life in both Oklahoma and Washington, D.C.

Brannum said she had no trouble finding the footage.

Ladonna and Fred Harris
Credit University of Oklahoma

“The media loved her in the 60s and 70s. They thought it was exotic to have a Native American woman in Washington who was liberal, and approachable, and also beautiful and glamorous," Brannum said.

Harris provided her with a trunk of photos. She also utilized the Fred Harris Collection at OU’s Carl Albert Center.

Brannum lives in Austin, but was raised in Norman and studied film production at the OU College of Journalism. She moved to Los Angeles after graduation, where she worked for nearly a decade with the Los Angeles Film Festival. She now works on reality television and with PBS. She recently worked on the PBS series We Shall Remain, along with Christina King, producer of the 2014 Muskogee-Creek music documentary This May Be the Last Time, directed by OU Film and Media Studies graduate Sterlin Harjo (Seminole).

“Because of Christina’s and my work on We Shall Remain, we are getting offers through the major PBS system, which is great because I don’t have to worry about fundraising, and crewing up," Brannum said. "It’s somebody else’s money, which is what I prefer, for now anyway.”

The Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program gave Brannum a fellowship to attend producers’ conferences at the Sundance Institute, and meet distributors, funders, mentors and peers. Vision Maker Media also helped with building momentum for Ladonna Harris: Indian 101. The production took six years to complete. Brannum acted as both producer and director, coordinating shoots and crews in various locations, writing grants, financing and budgeting. Making broadcast quality films costs a lot of money, but Brannum equally admires small budget projects. For those interested in filmmaking, she says start now- shoot and edit everything you can with whatever equipment is available.

Finding funds for short films can be equally, if not more difficult, said Raquel Chapa, filmmaker, critic and managing director of Dallas VideoFest. Her short film Open Season explores the effects of domestic and sexual violence experienced by native women, and survivor advocacy organizations. It was partially funded by an emerging filmmakers fellowship that no longer exists.  She came upon her latest project while documenting oral histories in the Dallas area. It will be a biopic about an all-Ponca typesetting crew at the Dallas Herald Tribune. Chapa will participate in the View from Industry Insiders discussion panel Saturday afternoon. She offers perspective on what’s working and what’s not for native women in media today.

Other members of the panel are Shirley Sneve, director of Native American Public Telecommunications and Vision Media Maker, a major funder and film distributor, Jill Simpson, current director of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and former director of the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, along with filmmakers Sydney Freeland and Yolanda Cruz.

“One thing we’re trying to do, both this year and long-term, is cultivate a new crop of Oklahoma filmmakers,” said organizer Joshua Nelson, OU professor and scholar of Cherokee and American Indian literature. The festival paired up with the Oklahoma Scholarship Leadership Enrichment Program (OSLEP) this year to offer a digital storytelling workshop, led by Comanche filmmaker Sunrise Tippeconnie, Sydney Freeland and Raquel Chapa. Nelson said tribal nations have an increasing interest in creating media. The festival aims to put folks in touch with resources, grow the body of Oklahoma indigenous film and provide another venue for sharing these works with the public.

Isabelle Cox starring in Jeff Palmer's Isabelle's Garden, a winner in the 2015 Sundance Short Film Challenge
Credit Jeff Palmer

Two Oklahoma short films open Saturday’s events at 10:00 a.m. You All Eat features Comanche matriarch and chef Carol Tiger, in a documentary by Kyle Bell. Isabelle’s Garden is a narrative about a young gardener bringing together her Choctaw community, by Kiowa filmmaker Jeff Palmer. It just won the Sundance Short Film Challenge, one of five films chosen from 1,387 entries from around the world.

The four short film panels on Friday and Saturday afternoons are appropriate for children of all ages, excluding A Red Girl’s Reasoning, which contains adult themes, including sexual violence and vigilante justice. In the international "Native Women as Action Heroes" category, Wakening is dystopian urban science fiction, by Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet. Young Wesakechak tries to access the spirit that will help her save the world. In the international experimental shorts panel, the hand-crafted stop-motion animation Indigo will please the young and young at heart. It’s Amanda Strong’s adaptation of a Cree story, about a grandmother spider figure that saves a young girl.

“One reviewer described it as native steampunk meets Tim Burton,” Dowell said.

A Saturday afternoon film panel spotlights Navajo communities. Billy Luther’s documentary Miss Navajo is a portrait of the Miss Navajo Nation pageant. It follows a participant for one year as she prepares and trains for the competition. Doing the Sheep Good documents the repatriation to the Navajo community of films made in the 1960s, when scholars Sol Worth and John Adair brought film equipment to Pine Springs, Arizona and taught residents how to use it. Director Theresa Montoya returns the films to the community for the first viewing there since 1966.

Sydney Freeland’s award-winning 2014 feature Drunktown’s Finest screens Saturday evening. It’s a narrative drama about three Navajo youth, living on the reservation near Gallup, New Mexico. Each of the characters represents a particular gender and subculture in Gallup. Sick Boy is a macho, Nizhoni is a Christian woman, and Felixia is nádleehé, a Navajo term for someone born biologically male who identifies as female. In other words, she’s a transwoman. At first, the narrative follows the three characters separately, but their stories later intertwine.

Actress Carmen Moore as Felixia
Credit Drunktown's Finest

Richard Ray Whitman, Yuchi poet, artist and Oklahoma City resident, plays Felixia’s grandfather, a medicine man, in Drunktown’s Finest. He and the director will give a Q&A after the screening.

The festival and symposium take place at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History in the Kerr McGee Auditorium. Overflow seating is available in the Bell Courtroom at the OU College of Law, a short walk across the parking lot from the museum. All programming is free and open to the public. The final screening happens at U.S. Grant High School in south Oklahoma City on Sunday afternoon, where Chatina filmmaker Yolanda Cruz, director of the short films La Reloj and Las Lecciones de Silveria, screens her feature-length documentary.  2,051 Migrants: A Journey is about a Oaxacan town that loses most of its Zapotec residents to northern migration, and the artist who honors their memory with life-sized sculptures. El Grupo Folkórico Norahua opens with a dance performance. A Q&A session and reception follow the screening, with refreshments by La Oaxaqueña restaurant.

Be sure to check out the Indigenous Women, Law and Power Symposium happening Thursday before the festival. Speakers include recent Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, author and land repatriation activist Suzan Shown Harjo, as well as Kimberly Teehee, former senior policy advisor to the White House on Native American affairs. Author Andrea Smith gives a 10:30 a.m. talk titled "Against Sexual Colonization:  Building Transformative Justice." Harjo lectures about "Empowering Women In Law" at 4:15 p.m. She delivers a keynote address at the film symposium Friday at 4:45 p.m.

Check our calendar of community events for many more activities happening this weekend. There is so much to do, see and experience in central Oklahoma, but only 168 hours each week. We’ll help you make the most of them.

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