NYU’s Native Film Festival Tells the Stories We Need to Hear

By Alex Cullina, Contributing Writer

The Native American and Indigenous Students’ Group (NAISG) at NYU hosted its fourth annual Native and Indigenous Film Festival on November 17th and 18th. Showcasing documentary and narrative films by and/or about Native and Indigenous people in North and South America and Hawai’i, the festival was cosponsored by a number of university departments and organizations.

Day one of the festival focused on films about Native Hawaiians. The films screened were: Hawaiian Sovereignty, an episode of the Viceland documentary series Rise, which follows Native American resistance movements; Kū Kanaka: Stand Tall, a short documentary about the disabled Native Hawaiian professor and activist Kanalu Young; and a feature-length documentary, Mele Murals, following two Native Hawaiian graffiti artists as they help guide a group of predominantly Native Hawaiian students in painting a series of murals, each inspired by a mele, a Native song or chant.

The common thread of the afternoon’s films was Native Hawaiians’ struggle to hold onto their culture and history, their pushing back against what they see as the continued encroachment by the United States government on their culture, rights, land, and sovereignty, and their active presence and role in Hawai’i today.

The films on the second day of the festival, each about Natives from different tribes in both North and South America, were more wide-ranging in both subject and approach. The first section of the day was a selection of short documentary films from the production collective Video in the Villages, each directed, filmed, and produced by Native Brazilians of various tribes. These films, which focus on daily life in the Amazon, were recently acquired by NYU Libraries as part of a larger archive, donated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Next was a short documentary from the series Invisible Nations titled Osage Language, about a teacher who created a writing system for the Osage language to make it easier for non-native speaking Osage to learn.

The final section of the festival was a selection of stop-motion animated short films, two narrative shorts and an anti-cultural appropriation PSA, by the Canadian Native artist Amanda Strong. The narrative films, placing emphasis on emotion and mood over plot, explore the effects of Canadian colonization on Native people, past and present, physically and psychologically.

Native films “put Native people in a modern context,” said Taylor Norman, a senior in GLS and the co-president of NAISG. She said that because of NYU’s strong film program, having a Native film festival here made sense. NAISG member Ikaika Ramones, a first year Ph.D. student in cultural anthropology and one of the organizers of the festival, said that Native film festivals are important because they highlight the perspectives of Natives’ own communities.

The films screened at the festival are unique, not only because they center on Native people, but also because many of them also have Native people behind the camera to tell their own stories. They depict Native people not as historical artifacts, but as people of today. The Native people of these films must grapple with their painful history of colonization by outsiders. They must remember their past, what was taken from them, and try to reclaim it in any way they can. But they also go about living their daily lives, each with their own mundane worries, and sorrows, and joys.

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