Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP.
From left, Sydney Freeland, Carmen Moore, Jeremiah Bitsui and MorningStar Angeline pose for a portrait at Quaker Good Energy Lodge with GenArt and the Collective , during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

The Native Film Every Festival Wants

Alex Jacobs
4/2/14

When last we checked in on Drunktown's Finest, a film about Gallup, New Mexico starring such young Native talent as Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore, Morningstar Angeline and Kiowa Gordon, the movie was at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Drunktown's Finest reaped positive reviews at Sundance, and is now finding its way to other film festivals. The first two stops were Denver's Women + Film Voices Festival and the Visionmaker Media Film Festival in Loncoln, Nebraska. Drunktown's Finest plays April 3, 5 and 6 at the Ashland Independent Film Festival in Ashland, Oregon, and has its east coast premiere at the concurrent Boston LGBT Film Festival on April 5. In a few weeks, it will screen at the Sundance London Film and Music Festival, and it has booked spots at the Santa Fe Film Festival (May) and the Albuquerque Film & Media Experience (June).

RELATED: Breaking Good: Jeremiah Bitsui's Road to Sundance, via Drunktown

Things are going well for Drunktown's FinestThings are also going well for director Sydney Freeland, who's seeing the payoff from a project that took her six years to make. Post-Sundance, she spoke with ICTMN Santa Fe arts expert Alex Jacobs.

A Navajo director and lead actors, with so many Native actors and actresses, a large Native crew, on location in Gallup and the Navajo Rez, where so many Hollywood films were shot. You have to love this project just from the sound of it. Please tell us your version of this story of how the movie project started?

Growing up, I never felt that I saw any of the people or places I knew represented on film. On a really basic level, I wanted tell a story about that.

However, I also wanted to show how diverse the reservation is. That led to the creation of three main characters. They all represent different communities on the rez and we get to see how they all interact and intersect with each other.

 How did you navigate and negotiate your way through this Sundance Institute accreditation process?

I submitted a feature script for the labs back in 2008. It wasn’t really a Sundance film, but Bird Runningwater from the Sundance Native Lab asked if I had anything else. I had just finished a first draft of Drunktown’s Finest that was 181 pages -- equivalent to a 3-plus hour movie. To his credit, he read the entire script and felt it had potential. He encouraged me to submit to the Native Lab and I was fortunate enough that they accepted the project. From there I was able to do the Screenwriter’s Lab, Director’s Lab, Composer’s Lab, and the Producer’s Summit.

As Native people, we all have heard these stories about Gallup, the Navajo Rez, the 4 Corners as boonies and wasteland, the border-town mentality of Indians and non-Indians. So we can imagine our own script playing out, but we would probably fight stereotypes with other stereotypes. What does it take to properly tell a story about all that history, all these generational issues, to an outside world that really doesn’t care … mostly because they think they already know?

One of the most valuable things I got out of the Sundance Labs was the idea that story is paramount. Because of this, I really tried to put my focus on telling a good story and making relatable characters. My thinking is, if I can get people to relate to these characters and their respective struggles then all that other stuff will work itself out.

That was the overall goal, but there were smaller ideas that I tried to play with. For example, it’s always struck me that a lot of films tend to portray Natives as just sitting around doing nothing, almost waiting for Western or Non-native people to show up. One thing I tried to do with this film was to drop the audience into a world that was already “in progress”, and force them to catch up (instead of vice versa). Hopefully, this adds a little bit of dimension to the community and its characters.

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