In some American Indian tribes, when important matters are being discussed a "talking stick" is handed around. Whoever holds it is the only one who may speak, while the others listen. Hence the name of the Talking Stick Film Festival.
"I look at each film as each person's time to hold the talking stick, to tell the story in their way," said festival director Karen Redhawk Dallett.
More than 100 films are scheduled to be shown during the inaugural event, which will be held Saturday through June 26 in Santa Fe.
There will be panels and workshops as well, with such notables as actor Wes Studi, director Chris Eyre _ whose supernatural thriller "Imprint" will be shown during the festival _ and actor Gary Farmer, who'll do double-duty leading a workshop and playing with his bluesy band.
The films were largely written, directed or produced by Indians from the U.S. and Canada, with some offerings from indigenous people of Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Samoa.
"I was surprised how much work is out there _ and how much brilliant, really stunning, work is out there," said Dallett, who had envisioned finding 20 to 30 good films for the festival.
That's a huge change from three decades ago, when Michael Smith, a Sioux working with the United Indians of All Tribes Foundation in Seattle, set about to find films _ no matter who made them _ that rebutted the stereotypical portrayal of Indians.
He scrounged up 17, and the American Indian Film Festival was born in 1975.
Relocated to San Francisco in 1977, the festival is still going strong, with this year's event scheduled Nov. 7-15. The American Indian Film Institute, which Smith heads, also holds digital training workshops and traveling film festivals for Indian youth on reservations and in rural communities.
"Video really opened up doors for American Indian artists; film is such a costly medium to work in. ... Now, with the growth of digital video, it's really exploded," Smith said.
As much as film has created stereotypes that have eroded the self-image of generations of Indians, it's also a powerful tool for healing and strengthening and for reshaping those perceptions, according to the institute.
Navajo filmmaker Norman Patrick Brown has made about a dozen films over the past 20 years, many in the Navajo language with English subtitles. He co-produced a 37-minute documentary to be shown at the Talking Stick festival called "Poison Wind," about the effects of uranium mining.
"For many of us, it's not really about the glamor or the high-end production values," said Brown, who has made films about diabetes and drug and alcohol addiction. "It's mostly serving our community, educating the community."
According to Smith, there are about a dozen Indian and indigenous film festivals in North America. Among them: events at the National Museum of the American Indian and the Heard Museum in Phoenix; Sundance Film Festival's Native Forum; the imagineNATIVE film and media arts festival in Toronto; and Dreamspeakers Film Festival in Edmonton, Alberta.
The Talking Stick film fest opens Saturday with the U.S. premiere of "Older Than America," a Canadian film directed by Georgina Lightning, who is Cree, about atrocities at Indian boarding schools. Also on tap opening night: the world premiere of "Paatuwaqatsi _ Water, Land, Life," by Hopi director Victor Masayesva.
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