Sundance 2023: Strong female leads shine a light on indigenous stories

There’s always been an unnecessary need for mystery and intrigue attached to indigenous female characters in Hollywood. When not showing subservience to white colonisers or the elder male folk in their tribal nation, the trope of the ‘exotic’ native woman depicted shows her quiet resilience and underrated intelligence in the face of adversity (aka, Pocahontas).

Step in Jax (Lily Gladstone), who would stop at nothing and snap at everything until she finds her missing sister in Fancy Dance (US Dramatic feature), a feisty Inuit Greenlandic lawyer fighting for indigenous rights against the Danish and Canadian (colonising) governments as much as the so-called do-gooders like Greenpeace in Twice Colonised (World Cinema Documentary) or 13-year-old Rosa (Valentina Véliz Caileo) using witchcraft to avenge her father’s death in the hands of a German colonist in Sorcery (World Cinema Drama). Or Angel Elis, a journalist fighting for press freedom in Muskogee (Creek) Nation in the US documentary, Bad Press.

After a two-year hiatus from in-person screenings through the pandemic, the Sundance festival returns with an impressive lineup of narratively nuanced yet hard-hitting films and documentaries on indigenous lives in the Americas and beyond. But distinctly, the indie film festival held in the absurdly cold and costly mountainous Park City has (once again) become the platform for political statements on colonialism fiercely depicted through relatable or real female characters.

Fancy Dance (directed by Erica Tremblay) and Murder in Big Horn (Razelle Benally and Matthew Galkin), a documentary based on the 2020 murder of 18 year old Kaysera Stops Pretty Places in Montana, dealt with the shockingly under-discussed topic of missing and murdered indigenous women in North America. Kaysera was the 27th woman in the United States to go missing and later found murdered, with the case going unresolved to date. Despite the growing coverage of the issue, Benally said there remained widespread ignorance of the challenges faced by indigenous communities.

The festival also saw the inauguration of the Indigenous House where native leaders, artists and storytellers, and those across the diaspora, like Asian American actor Randall Park, spoke on representation and building power. “I think especially those of us that come from Indigenous cultures, where we pray to a being with power, actually kind of like a non-gender power, and I think that because we are a country colonised by Europeans, that our systems aren't built around certain ideologies and practices of who gets centred,” said Bird Runningwater, Executive Producer of Fancy Dance and co-chair of the Academy’s Indigenous Alliance.

“We had to balance a fine line with educating, informing, and making it a human story,” says Benally. The filmmakers also hoped the exposure would help change legislation and communication between law enforcement agencies, more so since the streaming giant, Showtime approached them on the project with a clear intention to highlight the issue. In 2021, the platform rebooted Dexter almost a decade later as a mini-series on a native Chief of Police (paired with the titular anti-hero) determined to fight the system from within to find the women that went missing in her reservation. The ‘tough girl’ act needed to live on a Rez in post-colonial America was just as well characterised by Gladstone in Fancy Dance with all the understandable anger and frustration towards apathetic feds.

“I’m indigenous Oglala Lakota and Dine. I grew up with this fear learned through your parents, and it’s very much a reality where I come from,” Benally told Missing Perspectives about bringing her expertise and lived experience to a collaboration with Emmy-winning producer and director Galkin. It’s an ominous reality for women from the First Nations, even when they are as famous as the late actor Misty Upham, who was found murdered in 2014 after going missing for 11 days in Washington. She attended the Sundance premiere of her film Frozen River in 2008.

Another shining example of the same collaborative work was ethereally felt in the other documentary, Twice Colonized. Directed by Lin Alluna, the film follows Aaju Peter’s life in political activism, working for indigenous rights globally as she confronts the West for reparations to all the First Nations. The two met by “coincidence” in 2017 when Alluna was in film school and chanced upon Peter (at which she said, “just admit it, you’re my stalker”) while walking around Copenhagen. Inuit documentary filmmaker Alethea Arnaqua-Baril, who has known Peter since her early days and worked together on the Angry Inuk (2016) documentary, came in as a producer entering the complex dynamic of the coloniser-colonised crew. 

The documentary goes deep into Peter’s childhood against the backdrop of the Danish colonisation of Greenland, where a generation of children was removed from native communities and brought to live with families in Denmark in an effort to “civilise” them. While visiting Denmark and speaking to Danes in Danish, Peter exhibits familiarity and discomfort with the language that robbed her of her native tongue. In one scene, when a Danish man told her that she looked “pretty Western urban” carrying Starbucks in her hands,  she schooled him on his colonial perspective that was fixated n on seeing tribal natives the way they were 300 years back. 

“Having spent so much time with her over the years, even working on a documentary where we interviewed elders about traditional tattoos, I felt like there should be a film showing her the way I see her - just an incredibly strong, no-bullshit attitude…I felt like young women everywhere would gain strength from knowing her story”, Baril told Missing Perspectives. With Alluna’s mission to confront her country’s citizens with their colonial past and challenge themselves, Baril came on board, bringing more bits about Canadian colonisation to the script.

“I was completely blind to that at first,” says Alluna. “So it was very helpful for me to get those notes and have that realisation because I just didn’t notice it.”

For Peter, becoming a Sundance star at the ripe age of 63 was never something she imagined, let alone planned. “I've always been fascinated by leaders like Nelson Mandel, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi - amazing people who had identified injustice and would do anything to make it right at any cost,” she told Missing Perspectives. “And that’s where the rest of us are in the shade of people who have paved the way for making anything possible. I lost that ‘it’s impossible’ talk, and I don’t think I ever had it.”