Whale Rider and the Fight for Indigenous Films

Stefan Lovgren in Los Angeles
for National Geographic News
November 18, 2003

Editor's note: The National Geographic Society is now accepting submissions from filmmakers for the All Roads Film Festival; the deadline is May 31, 2004. See the sidebar at right for further details along with information on how to apply for a seed grant.

Whale Rider, a New Zealand film that tells the story of a Maori girl who must challenge her grandfather and a thousand years of tradition to fulfill her ancient tribe's destiny, became an audience favorite this year.

The movie, which was recently released on DVD and video, ended up earning more than U.S. $20 million at American box offices. With its native theme and an all-Maori cast, Whale Rider was surely a boon to indigenous filmmaking.

Well, maybe. Bringing the story to the big screen still required a pakeha (the Maori word for a New Zealander of European descent), in this case acclaimed director Niki Caro, who also adapted the screenplay from Maori writer Witi Ihimaera's novel.

Truly indigenous films are still few and far between.

Now, recognizing the challenges that native filmmakers face in having their voices heard, a new National Geographic Society initiative, called the All Roads Film Project, will provide seed grants and venues for indigenous filmmakers around the world.

A kick-off event in Washington, D.C., on October 30, gathered ten indigenous filmmakers. The program will host film festivals beginning next year in Washington and Los Angeles; award six to ten seed grants in 2004; and offer production classes and networking sessions with studio executives. It also aims to fund minority filmmakers who are under-represented in the mass media in their countries.

"These are narratives that have the power to last for centuries, yet they are not being told," said Mark Bauman, who is co-directing the project for the National Geographic Society. "Our goal is to reflect the rainbow of faces that make up our cultural universe, and inject a broader range of experiences into mainstream culture."

Native Backdrops

Indigenous subjects and themes are often pushed to the margins or end up serving as a backdrop for non-native storylines. It could be called the Dances With Wolves syndrome, a reference to 1990's Oscar-winning movie that explored Native American culture through the eyes of a white Army officer, played by actor Kevin Costner.

"There's a market for the romanticized native image, and one of the challenges is to break out of it," said Bird Runningwater, who heads the Native American program at the Sundance Film Institute and also serves on the All Roads Film Project advisory board. "The only way is for native peoples to make their own films, because there's a nuance and subtext that can only be conveyed by native filmmakers."

That's easier said than done. Even in the world's most vibrant indigenous film communities, such as Australia and New Zealand, native filmmakers are treated with suspicion.

Continued on Next Page >>


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