Three Ways the Sundance Institute Breaks Down Barriers Facing Native American Filmmakers

Many philanthropic organizations are committed to preserving indigenous cultures. For example, IP recently examined a round of choreography grants commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation, in which one of the recipient programs embraces the "silent" and "unheard" perspectives of indigenous Hawaiians. Then there are examples of organizations that not only work to preserve under-represented cultures, but actively create a community to cultivate the art forms within these cultures. Such is the case with the Sundance Institute's 2014 Native American and Indigenous Film Lab. The institute recently announced an open call for applications for its next program, which will begin in May of 2014.

The Institute is one of the greatest — if not the greatest — supporters of Native American and indigenous film in the US. In fact, the idea of cultivating this type of cinema was central to founder Robert Redford's original vision of the institute. And they have an impressive track record to back up this vision. Numerous acclaimed Native American filmmakers have worked with Sundance, such as Larry LittleBird and Chris SpottedEagle.

Sundance chooses four projects each year and looks for original narrative feature films, short films, and documentary proposals. The program is open to Native American, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native film artists.

However, what makes the the program so interesting is the way in which it supports Native American and indigenous filmmakers from conception to post-production. In fact, the program's process directly addresses three major obstacles that often contribute to Native filmmakers' lack of visibility in the world of independent cinema:

  1. Limited access to producers and funders. As any filmmaker will tell you, coming up with a good story can be the easy part. The hard part is actually getting the proposal in front of a producer or funder. The institute realizes this and proactively scouts and identifies promising Native American and indigenous artists. Their motto: "We'll also come to you."
  2. Minimal development resources. Films require constant rewrites and edits, yet Native American filmmakers often lack the access to "the experts" to help transform their vision from the page to the big screen. Sundance's intensive five-day workshop, to be held in May of 2014, will provide four fellows with precisely that.
  3. Inability to navigate "the industry." Once a film is completed, the real fun begins. Filmmakers have to secure distribution rights, advertise, and hit the promotional circuit. Many filmmakers — indigenous or otherwise — require a crash course in the ins and outs of post-production, and that's what the four Native Lab fellows will get during this important second stage. They'll attend the Sundance Film Festival where they'll network with industry players and get hands-on experience around what the institute calls the "business of cinema."

 For a deeper dive into the other types of programs offered by the Sundance Institute, click here.