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Several firsts in fest’s Indigenous Film Program

The Santa Fe Independent Film Festival’s Indigenous Film Program is celebrating its 11th anniversary, but this year’s fest ushers in a number of firsts for Native filmmaking.

Although the Institute of American Indian Arts has been involved in the SFiFF in the past, this year’s edition marks the first time the institution has officially sponsored the Native film program and the first time the indigenous sidebar has had a sponsor, notes IAIA marketing and communications director Eric Davis.

Tantoo Cardinal will be the first woman to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival Indigenous Film Program. (Courtesy SFIFF)

The Indigenous Film Program, which unspools from Oct. 16 to 20 with screenings and performances at CCA Cinematheque, Jean Cocteau Cinema, Lensic Performing Arts Center and The Screen, is also giving its lifetime achievement award to a woman for the first time.

On Saturday, Oct. 19, Tantoo Cardinal, who is of Metís heritage, will receive the award at the Lensic, before the screening of “Falls Around Her,” which is her first leading role in a feature-length film during a career that has spanned nearly 50 years.

In the film, directed by IAIA alumna Darlene Naponse, who is of Ojibway, Atikameksheng and Anishnawbek descent, a legendary singer returns to her homeland and is haunted by the belief that she is being watched and begins to lose track of what is reality and what is fantasy.

“We’ve come from very humble beginnings and turned into something special,” said Gary Farmer, SFiFF Advisory Board Chair who created this year’s program. Farmer, who is a Canadian actor and musician of Haudenosaunee and Iroquois descent, is best known for his performance in the 1995 film “Dead Man.”

Farmer said the idea for the Indigenous Film Program grew out of meetings that Robert Redford had with Native filmmakers in the 1990s. The artists were unhappy about the lack of a venue for their work, a vacuum that was later filled by the Sundance Film Festival, he said.

Today, with Native films making the rounds of the festival circuit, the challenge is commercial distribution, he said.

For instance, SFiFF entry “Blood Quantum,” which stars Albuquerque’s Forrest Goodluck as well as Farmer, has yet to find a distributor, Farmer noted. Directed by Jeff Barnaby, the film chronicles life on an isolated reserve, where a zombie plague has erupted among residents except for those of indigenous background. Goodluck, who is best known for his role in the 2015 Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Revenant,” will introduce Blood Quantum at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 20, at CCA along with Farmer.

While securing theatrical distribution remains a challenge for many Native filmmakers, so does finding financing. Farmer applauded the Chickasaw Nation’s investment in film production and envisions a day when a multitribal film fund could bring more Indigenous films to the big screen. “Can you imagine if several tribes used the proceeds from casinos to fund film productions?” asked Farmer. “Wouldn’t that be something?”

According to Farmer, one of the Indigenous Film Program’s hot tickets is “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open,” which will screen at 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19, at CCA. Directed by Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn, the film portrays two indigenous women from different backgrounds who develop a fragile friendship in British Columbia after one flees violence. Farmer said the film was based on real experience.

Another much anticipated screening is “Words from a Bear,” a documentary by Kiowa Jeffrey Palmer about Pulitzer Prize Winner N. Scott Momaday, also of Kiowa ancestry. The film, which screens at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, at CCA, features interviews with Mvskoke Nation’s Joy Harjo, the national poet laureate with strong New Mexico ties, actor and director Redford as well as actor brothers Jeff and Beau Bridges. Momaday will attend the screening.

At 8 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 16, a free multimedia art installation will be held at Jean Cocteau. Curated by Navajo Charmaine Jackson, “Defiance of Silence” will call attention to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

A music video directed by Cameron L. Martinez Jr. will be screened and a song will be performed by the Red Willow Singers of Taos Pueblo. A shawl designed by Patricia Michaels of Taos Pueblo will be on display as part of the event, which is designed to boost support for U.S. Representative Deb Haaland’s appeal for a national investigation into MMIWG.

Not all of the selections for the Indigenous Film Program highlight dark issues. In the romantic comedy “Top End Wedding,” a newly engaged couple tries to reunite the bride-to-be’s parents in a race against time to make their dream wedding a reality.

In addition to the eight feature films and 10 short films that will be screened during the SFiFF, IAIA student shorts will be showcased at 5 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 18, at CCA.