Review: The Sundance Film Festival visits Tulsa’s favorite theater, Circle Cinema, for the Indigenous Shorts Tour.
The 91-minute theatrical program featured six short films directed by Indigenous filmmakers. These films were selected from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival shorts program as well as by Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program alumni. The shorts captured aspects of identity and culture from an Indigenous perspective, allowing for their stories to be a part of a much bigger picture.
The first film, “Long Line of Ladies,” is a documentary that follows Ahtyirahm Allen, a 13-year-old girl preparing for a coming-of-age ceremony known as the Ihuk. Often referred to as the “Flower Dance,” the Ihuk honors a girl’s first period and symbolizes her emergence into womanhood. The film was made in association with The Pad Project, a non-profit organization that aims to end the stigma around periods and ensure access to period care for all. Directed by Rayka Zehtabchi and Shaandiin Tome, “Long Line of Ladies” brings light to the celebration of menstruation in the Karuk community of northern California.
“Kicking the Clouds”, an experimental documentary, is focused on a cassette tape recording of a Pechanga language lesson between director Sky Hopinka’s grandmother and great grandmother from over 50 years ago. The film also features an interview with Hopinka’s mother, whose insight helps bring the whole documentary together. It is a fascinating blend of 16mm footage along with audio from the cassette recording, Hopinka’s mother’s interview, and songs blend together to create a unique and refreshing way to make a documentary.
“Maidenhood”or “La Baláhna” is directed by Xóchitl Enríquez Mendoza. The title comes from the Zapotec term for virginity ritual. The film uses both Spanish and the Zapotec language. “Maidenhood” tells the story of a 17-year-old girl named Catalina. She belongs to an indigenous community in Mexico, where on the day of your wedding it is customary to prove your purity. On the night of her wedding, Catalina’s body fails to prove her chastity, which costs her both acceptance and respect. The essay does not intend to insult this indigenous practice but to shed light on it.
The third documentary in the program is Brit Hensel’s “ᎤᏕᏲᏅ” (Udeyonv) (What They’ve Been Taught). A story told by an elder and first language speaker, “ᎤᏕᏲᏅ” examines ways that reciprocity is expressed and connected in the Cherokee culture through art, tradition, language, and land maintenance. Hensel is also the first female citizen of the Cherokee Nation to direct an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival. “ᎤᏕᏲᏅ” is one of the seven films from the first season of the Reciprocity Project, a co-production of Nia Tero, Upstander Project, and REI Co-op Studios.
“The Original Shareholder Experience”, directed by Petyr Xyst, takes a strange turn from the other films in the program. Through the lens of satire, Xyst, leads us to the imaginative world of corporations selling “authentic” Native memorabilia to audiences from a shopping channel. The host, Rebecca, is a young Indigenous marketer who contradicts herself when she is faced with selling a warbonnet, that could lead to genocide. Rebecca must now choose who she will be loyal to her culture or the company. The atmosphere and overall look of the film are reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s “Network,” another satire that explores similar themes of corporate greed and personal responsibility.
Finally, “The Headhunter’s Daughter” by Don Josephus Raphael Eblahan, was the last feature on the program. The film was the winner of the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival Awards. “The Headhunter’s Daughter” follows Lynn, who leaves her family behind as she travels the roads of the Cordilleran Highlands to try her luck in the city as a country singer. Shot in the Cordilleran highlands in the Philippines, the beautiful landscape carries Lynn as she treks through the mountains, eventually reaching a small country bar where she sings. There are moments when all that we hear for the majority of Lynn’s journey is the sound of the wind and rain. When she reaches the country bar to perform her song, it is hoped that she will be seen on TV by her father. Lynn is played by Ammin Acha-ur, a singer among many other things, including a traditional “mambabatok” tattoo artist from the Butbut Tribe of Kalinga. This is the third film from Don Josephus Raphael.
Sitting in the darkness of Circle Cinema’s screening room, I watched these stories from the Sundance Film Festival Indigenous Shorts Tour. Each film presented facets of Indigenous life, culture, and identity. Each film represented their voices and ideals through the best way they could, through the medium of filmmaking.
After the lights lifted, and the credits rolled on the last short, I left feeling emotionally moved and motivated. An elated feeling one can only get after witnessing true art that affects the mind, body, and soul. Fortunately, these selected films allowed for this level of impact on a person.
The motion pictures provided insight, understanding, empathy, and connectedness to those who watched them. The Sundance Indigenous Program is a great step for continuing to tell Indigenous stories and reaching out through the silver screen.