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Pocahontas Reframed "Storytellers" Film Festival

film fest

Pocahontas Reframed, an annual film festival held in Richmond, VA, showcases mainstream films that feature Native Americans as major characters and independent films that are directed, produced, and written by Native Americans. The festival was co-founded by Francis Ford Coppola and Peter Kirkpatrick, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who also serves as the director. Bradby Brown, assistant Chief of Virginia’s Pamunkey Tribe, is the festival’s chairman. In its third year, the 2019 festival included 41 films, live performances, panel discussions, and drama classes at various locations around the city. Also featured were performances by the Cherokee dance group The Warriors of Anikituhwa and flautist Darren Thompson (Ojibwa/Tohono O’odham).

Many films this year were directed, written by, and starring Native American women: Once Upon A River, written and directed by Haroula Rose; The Peacemaker Returns, directed by Skawennati (Mohawk); Nanyeh, directed by Becky Hobbs (Cherokee); Don’t Just Talk About It, written, directed, and produced by Cher Obediah (Seneca/Ojibwe/Turtle Clan from Six Nations Ontario); Spirit Song, directed by Ashley Davidson; The Incredible 25 Years of Mitzi Bearclaw, written, directed, and produced by Shelley Niro (Six Nations Reserve, Mohawk, Turtle Clan); Falls Around Her, written, directed, and produced by Darlene Naponse (Anushinaabe Kwe from Atikameksgeng Anishnawbej); Sacheen: Breaking The Silence, starring Sacheen Littlefeather (White Mountain Apache and Yaqui); Warrior Women, directed, and produced by Elizabeth A. Castle and Marcy Gilbert, who is the daughter of Madonna Thunder Hawk; “Auntie Beachress,” three short films directed by Tonia Jo Hall (Lakota, Dakota, and Hidatsa); and Alphabet City Serenade, directed by Diane Burns (Chemehuevi and Anishinabe).


Rose’s Once Upon A River is a riveting coming of age story about a teen traveling alone by boat on Michigan’s Stark River, searching for her estranged White mother after her Indian father is murdered. The film touches on interracial relationships, abortion, sexual abuse, and the transition from adolescence to womanhood. It explores friendships, love, and self-reliance among a diverse cast of Native and non-Native Americans. Dialogue is often at a minimum in many of the deliberately slow moving scenes, but lead actress Kenadi DelaCerna’s facial expressions and body language are engrossing and it is hard to believe that this is her first film. Watching her intensely row long distances is a moving experience of physicality for viewers.

For academic-oriented audiences, the symposium, “Through an Indigenous Lens,” at the University of Richmond, featured Indigenous filmmakers, visual artists, and curators Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga) and brothers Adam and Zack Khalil (Ojibwe) exploring Indigenous cinema as anti-ethnographic practice, formal innovation in the form, and the future of Indigenous cinema and art in the context of Indigenous self-determination. Films by the Khalils and Hopinka have been screened at Sundance, Toronto International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, Tate Modern, and the 2019 Whitney Biennial exhibition. “Anti-Ethnography,” a selection of 14 video shorts preceded the panel discussion.

Of the 14 shorts, the one generating the most conversation was Native Fantasy: Germany’s Indian Heroes, directed by Axel Gerdau, Erik Olsen, and John Woo. Part documentary and part comedy, the film revolves around an annual reenactment festival in a small town north of Berlin where “Indian” actors portrayed by Germans live in tipis, wear traditional regalia, and perform Lakota cultural activities. The main character is “Apache” Chief Winnetu, who performs Lakota ceremonies, based on a protagonist in a series of romanticized fantasy novels by Karl May. May fabricated his visits with American Indian chiefs and later established the Karl May Museum, which houses Indian scalps and various artifacts that are culturally misattributed.

Wawa, by Sky Hopinka, similarly engaged the audience. The film, which takes its title after the name of the Chinook language, features six generations of language speakers with varying levels of fluency. Questions were raised in an ensuing Q&A about the authenticity of a language as it continues to adapt, as well as which speakers, and at what level of fluency, can claim to be authentic. Other philosophical questions posited were, “Since people are not considered Indigenous if they were not colonized, what were we/they before colonialism?” And if the term ‘Indigenous’ has replaced ‘American Indian’ and ‘Native American,’ what term comes next?” The Khalils responded that they believe there is political utility in using the umbrella term ‘Indigenous’ “because we are all oppressed,” but added that they will invoke Ojibwe or Anishinaabe for specificity.

Also featured in the symposium was the short film, Alphabet City, a quick take on urban Indians living in New York City, specifically the Lower East Side neighborhood affectionately called Alphabet City. The concrete and brick landscape is not the usual image people associate with Indian Country, but the hybrid Indigenous cultural experience there (many residents are Puerto Rican with Taino ancestry) is vibrant and thriving.

Niro returned to Pocahontas Reframed this year with her 90-minute feature film, The Incredible 25th Year of Mitzi Bearclaw, which was filmed on a Canadian island. The main character is a 25-year-old woman torn between working in the city as a hat designer and hanging out with her urban First Nations graduate student boyfriend or returning to her reserve to care for her ailing mother. Despite the island’s slow pace, lack of modern amenities, and relative isolation, Mitzi finds peace in her native environment among her family and old friends, creating a balance with her design aspirations and familial responsibilities. Niro’s post-film discussion and Q&A
focused on the similarities of the film’s fictional Owl Island and the realities facing island-based First Nation reserves: having to cope with difficult financial circumstances by choosing to stay in their more traditional environment or relocating to Canadian cities for better job opportunities; living a somewhat subsistence-based lifestyle where sustenance is already impacted by climate change; and being confronted with Christian imposition on traditional spirituality.

Niro mentioned that some non-Native viewers do not understand that they can laugh at some of the scenes depicting death and disease without feeling guilty. But, she said, “humor is necessary. Native people laugh to survive.” Audience members asked Niro how she found actors such as Morningstar Angeline (Navajo, Blackfoot, and Mexican), who played Mitzi Bearclaw, and Ajuawak Kapashesit (Anishinaabe and Cree), who portrayed Honeyboy, the water taxi driver. She replied, “When you see an actor you like, you think, ‘please let me have him or her.’ Having actors who are artists and can bring words to life are gifts.” Others asked about her process for securing funding and whether she wrote screenplays for other people. “I have been making films since 1992, mainly shorts. Making a feature film is a long process. I started writing this film in 2005 and finished it in 2018. I don’t have time to write screenplays for other people. It’s hard to raise money for production,” she replied, adding that she has found local distribution for Mitzi Bearclaw but is looking for a U.S. distributor.

One of the most moving documentaries at the festival was Sacheen: Breaking the Silence. Littlefeather was the first person (and first woman of color) to make a politicized speech during an Oscar presentation, reading a statement from Marlon Brando that was televised internationally in 1973. The film revisits this controversial historical event, which led to her being blacklisted in Hollywood. The 2019 American Indian Film Institute awarded Breaking Silence with a Best Documentary Short, and it received the Audience Choice award for Best Documentary at the 20th Beverly Hills Film Festival.

The Pocahontas Reframed Storytellers Film Festival is committed to investing in future Native filmmakers by partnering with the Tribal College Journal, a national nonprofit media organization. The 2019 festival awarded Michael Begay (Santo Domingo Pueblo/ Navajo), a student at the Institute for American Indian Arts and winner of the TCJ Student Film Contest, an all-expense paid trip to the festival where he screened his original work, Lightning Boy, featuring poet and writer Vivian Carroll, also of IAIA. Brown noted that Begay will be joining accomplished Native filmmakers from Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. as they screen their films to large audiences at the Historic Byrd Theatre.


— Phoebe Farris, Ph.D. (Powhatan-Pamunkey) is a Purdue University professor emerita, photographer, and freelance art critic based in New Jersey, New York, and Washington D.C.

Top image courtesy of Pocahontas Reframed Film Festival. 

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