New Native Cinema Includes LGBTQ Elements
Monday, June 09 2014
Written by Alfred Walking Bull,
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new native cinema includes lgbtq elements.jpgRepresenting the variety of life on the reservation is the aim of director Sydney Freeland's debut feature film “Drunktown's Finest.”

OUT Twin Cities Film Festival along with the Minnesota Two Spirit Society sponsored the film to be presented because it represents various aspects of life on the Navajo Nation. For Freeland (Navajo), the reason for making the film was rooted in portrayals of Native Americans in film. “On a basic level, I didn't feel like I saw the people and the places I knew portrayed on film before. You have Native Americans in film but more period based stuff. There's 'Dances With Wolves' and 'Last Of The Mohicans' and aside from 'Smoke Signals,' there isn't a lot of contemporary stuff. On a very basic level, I just wanted to tell a story and show how diverse it was, life on the reservation.”

Part of that diversity includes a Two Spirit character, Felixia.

“It goes back to the idea of showing how diverse the reservation is, Felicia is trans and she represents the LGBT community. There's a traditional aspect to the character that is relevant to the film,” Freeland said. “I left the rez, I grew up there, but I left when I was 18 and went to film school in San Francisco and met a trans woman there. She said how loving and accepting of trans people the reservation is. I said what do you mean, and she said, 'well it's part of the culture.'”

“I was writing a script that I had to do the research on my own culture. That's when I learned the concept of the third and fourth gender. It's a little ironic that I had to leave the rez to learn about my culture,” Freeland said.

In her research, the first-time feature film director drew from both her friends and family who identify as Two Spirit as well as textual resources. “Primary there was this book called the Navajo Story. This Jesuit priest in the early 1900s went to the people and got the traditional creation stories and put them down on paper. That was an amazing resource for me. I heard it growing up, too but it was amazing to see it on paper.”

Finding the right actor to play the role of the Two Spirit character Felixia was serendipitous for Freeland. “We have the character of Felicia, played by Carmen Moore, she is trans, that was very important to me, she brings a depth of character to her and this was her first feature film,” Freeland said. “I was writing an early draft and went on YouTube and suggested video that had Navajo in the title, 'Navajo Transsexual Carmen Moore.' They were interviewing Carmen in Las Vegas and I said oh my gosh, that's her. I tracked her down and found her, she grew up on the same rez, 45 minutes from me. I pitched her the story and she was on board.”

Developing Felixia was an important part of Freeland's early work at the 2010 Sundance Director's Lab where she shot four scenes from the script. “We brought her out and got to work with her. First of all, Carmen is stunning and gorgeous and she looks the part. That's the important thing about filmmaking, they also have to be able to act. That was the first time I got to work with her and I said she can do this, she has the acting chops. The basic approach was that I wanted people who could play themselves.”

While simply having Native Americans appear in film and TV roles may a one-time opportunity, Freeland looked for an almost exclusively-Native cast. “It was really intense because there are 36 speaking roles, 32 are Native American and of those, 18 are Navajo. The casting process was looking high and low for anybody and everybody. We a sort of wide variety of experience levels. Jeremiah Bitsui who was in “Breaking Bad” and “Into the West” and Kiowa Gordon in the “Twilight” films. Then you have people like Dion Vandever and Lynisha Dishta, they had never acted before. There was an open call we did in the mall in Gallup. We plucked them from the audition and put them in front of a camera. It was everything else in between those two.”

Film shooting took place last July and August in Gallup, Espanol and Santa Fe, New Mexico from where Freeland hails.

As for the title of the film, “Drunktown’s Finest,” it is her response to a news story that characterized her hometown of Gallup, as “Drunktown, USA.” “I didn't put a lot of my own personal experience, but I tried to create characters who were amalgamations pf people I actually know. They're their own people.”

The film features the characters of Nizhoni, who was adopted and raised as a Christian by a white family, Two Spirit Felixia aspires to become a model and Sickboy is a character headed to basic training so he can take care of his soon-to-be-born child. In press material, the film observes the Navajo Nation from the inside out through the eyes of these three unlikely characters. “At first our preconceptions are reinforced, but slowly, as each of their lives unfolds, we confront the reality of living in this community and we see these three aspiring to leave their town behind.”

The reception so far to Freeland's offering has been positive and inquisitive overall, but she has noticed a difference between Native and non-Native moviegoers. “I think the one thing I've noticed with Natives is that they seem to be on board a lot sooner than non-Native audience. In Non-Native audiences, there's a little bit of hesitation like, 'is it OK to laugh at that.' I feel like with Native audiences, they're on board a lot quicker.”

The ultimate test for Freeland is coming in August. “We haven't screened the film on the reservation. We've been to Sundance and London, but we're slowly working our way back to the reservation. This could be one of our largest Native audiences.”

Finding an audience for the film is also a challenge that the director is ready to overcome. “We had a screening in Albuquerque. I wasn't able to attend but from what I heard, it was our largest venue to date, 600 seats and it sold out. We're stoked about it because that says there's an audience for this film. That's one of the things we're saying to distributors is that there is an audience for this film. The feedback I've gotten so far, it's gone over very well.”

As a first-time feature director, the process has been edifying. “It's been a learning experience, this is my first feature. I've also done 25 short films as well. I work in the industry. If I'm not directing, I'm doing. I feel like I sort of have a degree of familiarity but the new part for me – as far as production, I don't feel like there were too many surprises – the festivals and trying to sell the film, it's been interesting to see how this side of the industry works.”

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