Whale Rider and the Fight for Indigenous Films

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"It has to take a non-indigenous producer, broadcaster, or film company to ratify a project before the general film community goes, 'Oh, yes, this is good,'" said Bain Stewart, an Aboriginal producer and founder of Bungabura Productions (the word is Aboriginal for "blue crane"), which he runs with Leah Purcell, a well-known Aboriginal actress-director. (Both also serve on the All Roads Film Project advisory board.)

Five Years of Self-Representation

But there are signs that indigenous filmmakers are getting more opportunities to tell their stories. In recent years, Native Americans, in particular, have achieved some success.

It started in 1998 with Smoke Signals, a movie about two young American Indian men who go on a soul-searching journey. Directed by Chris Eyre, who is of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, Smoke Signals won both the Audience Award and the Filmmaker's trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. It went on to gross more than U.S. $6.5 million in the United States.

Last year, three Native American films got theatrical distribution in the United States: The Business of Fancydancing; Skins, Eyre's follow-up to Smoke Signals; and the critically acclaimed Atanarjuat ("The Fast Runner"), the first Canadian film written, produced, directed, and acted by members of the nomadic Inuit people.

"After 100 years of American cinema, the fact that we're celebrating five years of self-representation says a lot about our national cinema and even our own country," said Runningwater, who is Cheyenne and Mescalero-Apache. "Native Americans…exist… in a world that [was] transplanted and grown around them, and lived within systems that haven't always supported them, but have historically oppressed them."

The problem, says Runningwater, is that Native American filmmaking doesn't reach down to the grassroots level. Traditionally, most Native Americans don't see themselves as filmmakers. That, however, could change.

"We didn't have beads at the time of the Europeans, but we took the beads into our lives and reinterpreted their use, and now they're an amazing craft that exists with native people," said Runningwater. "I don't see why filmmaking can't become a creative tradition with native people as well."

The Importance

All Roads aims to reach out not only to native groups in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States, but also to native filmmakers who are even more marginalized: African tribes, people of the Amazon jungle, and hill tribes in Southeast Asia.

"Indigenous stories are really the last uncharted territory for fresh stories," said Runningwater. "There's a mine of wealth out there."

Bauman, too, believes the world has a lot to learn from indigenous stories. Native films, he says, can even be an avenue for peace.

"Injecting a broader range of experiences into popular culture is always critical," he said. "Given international events on the Korean peninsula, in the Middle East, in parts of Africa, it's very, very important right now that [people] have venues in which we can listen to each other's stories without having to feel any fear."

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