Given the specific nature of the 11th Annual Native Cinema Showcase, which coincided with Indian Market and showed more than 40 films from Native filmmakers worldwide, I was curious about exactly who would fill the auditorium at the New Mexico History Museum. As the week progressed, it became clear: anyone and everyone. The crowds were thick with people laughing, responding, applauding and staying until the end. Still, I sensed that, if it weren’t for this individualized forum—presented by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian and the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts—many of these valuable stories would be abandoned to orbit some level of deep obscurity.
I volunteered to help out on the first night, which premiered award-winning short films from various categories. The biggest crowd-pleaser of the night was the (stylish! ambitious! slick! funny! dynamic!…ie, talent-rich and commercially savvy) narrative winner: Search for the World’s Best Indian Taco. Within a clever odyssey/
love story, the film playfully addresses traditional cultural references and stereotypes.
The Showcase Shorts, a diverse selection of 6- to 17-minute films, were the weeklong festival’s early highlight. Bear Tung brings to life the idea of man communing with nature, in a literal sense, and evokes the rich and poignant humor possessed by so many brilliant auteur directors of yesteryear. Cousins is a highly relatable, naturalistic teen drama about a pair of cousins who “like” the same boy; effortlessly, the film refreshes the genre-weary high school movie. Keeping Quiet, a lyrical, emotive mood piece, offers glimpses into the life of a parking attendant trying to forge personal connections. A black-and-white period piece, Shimásání, features a daughter ordered to tend sheep at home while her sister is sent off to attend school. When the homebound daughter discovers her sister’s schoolbook filled with pictures of far-off people and places, she becomes enthralled and wonders about attending school herself. This elegant film carefully explores the tension inherent in a patriarchal, assimilating educational system that offered outside knowledge, yet punished children for speaking their native languages.
The stunning opening night feature, On the Ice, is an eerily suspenseful, unconventional, contemporary-set noir that plays out in what feels like a strange state of limbo. In arctic Alaska, the sky is always white, mirroring the monochromatic forms of ice and snow below. A character remarks that the sun won’t set until August. When conflict flares between three teenage male friends hunting on the deserted tundra, only two survive. They rejoin their community amid questions and suspicion from all sides. In a place without darkness, there is no place to hide. A powerful ending delivers a complex coming-of-age resolution to this haunting story.
The festival’s films should no more occupy an exclusive niche market than, for example, Weimar German cinema or Italian neorealism. Unique voices, telling personal stories of specific cultures, have the transcending power to achieve universal importance. In terms the industry understands: When audiences appear, as they did this week, movies have already come to life. They deserve a platform to continue existing.