Empowering native people with the art of film-making

By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
[email protected]


If you have ever watched ‘The Sleeping Dictionary’ or ‘Farewell to the King’, you might have been struck by how the indigenous people are romanticised as untamed jungle dwellers waiting for a more ‘civilised’ people to come to the rescue.

While this might have been a fair depiction of the indigenous people a few hundred years ago, depicting them the same way today comes off as outdated and lazy film-making.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC), the worldwide global box office revenue will grow from USD39.1 billion in 2015 to approximately 48 billion in 2019.



Director of Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous program, Bird Runningwater


While the movie or media industry is thriving and gaining profit from this sort of misrepresentation, people become mislead by these stereotypes because – honestly – most of us gain information about other people and cultures from film.

Compared to Hollywood, the Sundance Institute works with independent filmmakers who work outside the system striving to tell their own original and authentic stories.

“In Sundance we are known for curating and identifying some interesting stories and unique artists, getting involved with them at a point where they are trying to make their first feature. That way we can put them out on the map for other people to know about,” said Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous programme director Bird Runningwater.

Earlier this month, Runningwater was in Kuching to give talks on film-making organised by Angkatan Zaman Mansang Sarawak (AZAM Sarawak) and Pustaka Negeri Sarawak respectively in collaboration with the US Embassy Kuala Lumpur.


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Runningwater during his talk at Komplex AZAM.


Runningwater has been the director of Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous programme for about 15 years, scouting worldwide for indigenous artists with projects that could be supported by the institute’s programmes on feature films, documentaries, theatre, Creative Producing Initiatives and the Sundance Film Festival.

The programme is designed to support the development of native and indigenous artists, the exhibition of their work and facilitate their participation in the Sundance Film Festival.

The programme currently operates labs and fellowships in the United States, New Zealand and Australia.

“So the work that I do in my programme with indigenous filmmakers is that all of them want to do contemporary stories where they show indigenous people living in the contemporary world, living contemporary lives, interacting with the world but still retaining a sense of their own culture and their own sense of identity, their own sense of existence.”

According to Runningwater, about 20 years ago there was still some uncertainty on whether native filmmakers could make feature films even though the interest was already there.

During that period of time there was already a strong generation of filmmakers working on documentaries, wanting to correct the representation of natives within American culture as well as to correct the narratives about their individual tribal communities by trying to tell their own tribal stories from the inside out.


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Runningwater (middle) taking pictures with some of the participants at Pustaka Negeri after his talk.


“They do that a lot through documentary mostly because a lot of the support and funding that was available was really through the ‘Public Broadcasting System’ (PBS) who are the only one interested in diverse stories, minority cultures… actually telling stories that diversify larger American natives,” said Runningwater.

In contrast, Runningwater said that the second generation which began to emerge during the 90s was a whole new generation of native filmmakers interested in trying to tell fiction narratives or feature films.

“As native Americans are invisible to a large part of American consciousness within the media culture, what the programme does is try to chip away that part to allow native representation to appear within the larger American native culture,” said Runningwater.

“That has always been the goal of Mr Robert Redford (founder of Sundance Institute) as well. He recognised the absence of our own authentic representation of ourselves in the American media landscape.”

Examples of filmmakers who have had their work shown in Sundance Film Festival was New Zealand-born Taika Waitiki, where among his earliest work made was ‘Two Cars, One Night’ about two boys and a girl in the carpark of a rural pub in New Zealand.

Inspired by his own personal experience when he was a child, he wanted to tell his story from his own tribal region which is evident from the actors’ accents.

“I asked him why he did not make it in his tribal dialect of Maori and he said that he wanted to highlight the way that English was spoken with a different kind of accent, so he chose to shoot the film in English,” said Runningwater of the short film which earned Waititi an Academy Award nomination in 2004.

Later, Taika directed several feature films such as ‘Boy’ (the highest grossing New Zealand on its soil to date) and ‘What We Do in the Shadows’, both filmed in New Zealand and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 2010 and 2014 respectively.

He is now in negotiation to direct ‘Thor Ragnarok’, the third installment in Marvel’s ‘Thor’ franchise.

“All of his success came from this one short film that he was inspired to tell based from his personal experience, coming from his part of the world, coming from his region of the world, speaking in specific way that people spoke in his world,” said Runningwater.

Hoping that the work of native and indigenous artists could reach a much bigger audience, the programme is constantly looking for interesting work that pushes the boundary of cinema while combining both world and cultural views to create a culturally distinctive and great film.

“And so we always have this level of discussion whenever my colleagues and I are looking at a piece of work to kind of say what are they trying to accomplish, what was their vision, did they achieve their vision, did they execute their filmmaking to a level that is actually a contribution to a larger world of cinema?”

Other filmmakers and projects that Runningwater has identified to support through Sundance Institute programmes include Sterlin Harjo for his Spirit award-nominated ‘Four Sheets to the Wind’, and his follow-up feature ‘Barking Water’; Billy Luther’s award-winning ‘Miss Navajo’ and his second feature documentary ‘Grab’; Andrew Okpeaha Maclean’s Sundance Film Festival Jury Prize winning ‘Sikumi’ and his feature debut ‘On The Ice’ which was awarded the Crystal Bear Award and the Best First Feature Prize at the 61st Belinale; and most recently Aurora Guerrero’s Mosquita Y Mari and Sydney Freeland’s ‘Drunktown’s Finest’.

While they might be advanced tools that can be used to create a great work or make one become a great write or director, Runningwater said that it ultimately depended on the individual artist’s distinct voice and vision and the stories they were trying to create.

“I would give encouragement to future filmmakers to look within their own surroundings to find great stories, that I think the world would find interesting,” he advised.

Perhaps this is what our local filmmakers could look forward to when making local feature films relevant to the issues surrounding our local community in the future.

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