The Byrd Theater hosted the inaugural “Pocahontas Reframed: Native American Storytellers Film Festival,” celebrating the diverse Native American cultures, histories, languages and identities Nov. 17- 19.
A press conference in the VCU Commons was held a few hours before the film’s opening, where the film festival’s organizers, as well as featured actors, directors and performers, spoke.
“Reframed,” was directed by Brad Brown, the Chief-Assistant for the Pamunkey Indian Tribe based in King William. Brown said the creation of the film festival started in March 2016 after a conversation with Peter Kirkpatrick , co-director of the French Film Festival, who was pushing for a Native American film.
Other main organizers also included George Aguilar, the well known Native actor who worked in The Scarlet Letter, and is an organizer for the French Film Festival and Todd Schall-Vess, the General manager of Byrd Theater.
“The response has exceeded our expectations” Brown said. “The festival is free too which shows the extent of support from Todd and others and work that has gone into this.”
According to Aguilar, there are festivals focused on indigenous communities in the western part of the United States, but this is the first of its kind on the East coast.
The festival features 16 films from various genres that were all directed and/or produced by Native Americans.
Ironic comedies like “Reel Injun” (2009) use historical analysis to mock the stereotypes of Native Americans seen in Hollywood which are traditionally focused on belittling Native culture while romanticizing the lead white characters. “Rumble: The Indians who rocked the world” (2017) is a documentary film that explores the under recognized impact of Native musicians in rock, folk, blues and pop. Similar to the film festival’s titular name, the film “Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth,” (2017) challenges the false mythology of the Powhatan princess’s conversion to Christianity and acceptance of British culture and religion.
The curation of the film’s list also focused on a younger, millennial generation of Native Americans who are using their art to address political and social issues.
Nataanii Means is the focus a eponymous documentary. Means, a member of the Lakota Nation, has a large international following as a filmmaker and musician and has been a leading organizer during the Standing Rock resistance movements since 2016.
“I do a lot of things but storytelling is who I am and the greatest storytellers of our generations are the freedom fighters, the activists,” Means said. “I went to arts school mainly because I didn’t know what to do but my brother said you’re going and getting off the reservation. I went and started to use storytelling as a tool.”
The 1491’s are an all Native comedy sketch group who say that they are based in the “wooded ghettos of Minnesota and buffalo grass of Oklahoma.”
The members of the group, Dallas Goldtooth, Sterlin Harjo Migizi Pensoneau, Ryan Red Corn and Bobby Wilson are currently working on a feature length film and have appeared on popular shows like the “Daily Show.” Though the comedy group uses a dry humor to mock Native American stereotypes, each of the members are politically active among their own tribes and in pushing for legal rights of Natives.
“Being Native is inherently a political thing,” Red Corn said. “Even if you aren’t into politics anything you do becomes political so we use comedy as a tool. We can’t separate ourselves from politics.”
The 1491’s performed during the weekend-long festival and also had a feature documentary that covered their performances throughout the world.
Both Means and the 1491’s feel social media has positively impacted the representation of Native American youth and is helping make tangible change in their lives through policy change.
“The entire Standing Rock movement, the recent oil spill near Standing Rock, we can use social media and our art to raise a voice. we’re finally seeing some beautiful self love from the Native youth,” Means said. “It’s because of the freedom fighters, the activists and it’s a beautiful thing to see because coming from an harsh place like the rez, it manifests in self-hate, you consume it.”
Statistically, Native Americans have the lowest rates of education and the highest rates of poverty, homelessness and suicide among other forms of cyclical violence. Many of the actors present at the press conference commented on their belief that the increasing push to celebrate Native American identity through the arts is crucial in changing the impact of centuries of violence on indigenous communities.
“In our admittedly unwieldy title to me the most important word is ‘storyteller,’ Schall-Vess said. “If you go see a great play, a great poetry reading, a great musician and if you go and see a great film the key point there is the storytelling. It succeeds or fails based on the the story telling. The storytelling here will help reframe and challenge the stereotypes of indigenous peoples.”
Spectrum Editor, Siona Peterous