Natives in Tamalewood
Cinematic Arts and Technology
Cinematic arts and technology
RAZELLE BENALLY is on location at Fort Marcy Park on a hot sunny Friday afternoon, filming a scene from her short movie I Am Thy Weapon, about a young Native woman who returns to her hometown to pay homage to her late sister. Benally is busy herding six cast members and a crew of a dozen or more. “Nothing else in the world compares to that feeling of when you see your vision come to life,” Benally, an Oglala Lakota/Navajo student at the Institute of American Indian Arts said during a break in filming.
Benally is one of 40-some students who have been majoring in IAIA’s cinematic arts and technology program, which immerses them into all facets of filmmaking, from screenwriting to production to directing to film history.
The program in its current form is barely three years old and hasn’t yet seen its first full cohort of students graduate. School president Robert Martin hired film department chair James Lujan, a playwright who previously worked as program director of InterTribal Entertainment, a workforce development initiative of Southern California Indian Center, Inc., to run the program. Before that time, IAIA offered students a degree called new media arts under the umbrella of the moving images and graphic/interactive design programs, Lujan said. It was felt those two tracks were not quite compatible, so Lujan was brought in to redesign the program to focus on production with an emphasis on storytelling.
Lujan got some good news last week when another 20 incoming and transfer students announced their desire to be part of the film program. “More proof that the word is getting out,” he said. The college, he said, is the only tribal one of its kind in the country to offer a bachelor’s degree in film.
Most of the students come from various tribes and nations around the world, Lujan said. “It’s an exciting time and place for Native filmmakers to come together and ... make an impact on mainstream culture, not just with Native storytelling but storytelling in general.” (Non-natives make up about 20 percent of the student population at IAIA.)
Lujan studied film at the University of Southern California. There, he said, the art of storytelling was not emphasized. “You came out with a knowledge of technology but with no ability on how to say what you wanted to say,” he said.
At IAIA, the story is at the center of the program. All students must take at least one class in every film component — directing, writing, broadcasting, or editing. In 2010 IAIA unveiled a digital dome — sort of like a mix between IMAX and a planetarium
— that is 24 feet in diameter, 12 feet high, and can rotate from zero to 90 degrees. Students can use the dome to interact in real time with art objects — performing a three-dimensional virtual dissection of a piece of pueblo pottery, for instance. The dome features surround sound and six film projectors.
Mats Reiniusson, Digital Dome and Production Resources Manager, said he is not sure how often Native American students gain access to a program that honors their culture and allows them to use new technology like the dome to honor and preserve it. However, Kahlil Hudson, an assistant professor in the department, said that while students of all cultures can probably find a way to use technology for filmmaking and learn the basics of screenwriting, the mix of students from around the world — he used Mexico, New York, and New Mexico as three examples — “really make this program work. They are the support system and your inspiration. They bring each other up.”
IAIA Navajo graduate student Felicia Nez agreed. She said students support one another on their inclass films, which means they also act as gaffers, camera assistants, boom mike operators, and actors. “We all just kind of help each other out when we need it, it’s really collaborative,” said Nez, who is now working on earning her master’s degree in screenwriting at the institute. “There is such a creative vibe, not just in the film department, but all around the campus. You may have a friend over in the graphic design department so you go ask him to help you out. We all kind of come from the same tradition of storytelling so we all have a passion to tell good stories and we are willing to help each other make these stories become a reality.” Nez is working on a new sci-fi comedy titled The
World Is Screwed But Me and You Are OK, which she workshopped this past summer in a writers’ lab run by IAIA and the Sundance Institute. The program teamed aspiring screenwriters like Nez with established writers to allow students to rework their scripts for a staged reading. It’s one of the components of the IAIA film department that Nez likes: “Professional advisers from LA flew in and we had one-on-one meetings about our scripts. They read it and helped me break it down, noting what they liked about it and what could be improved.” Thanks to that summer initiative, she refocused the script from melodramatic horror to comedic science fiction.
Student Sydney Isaacs of the Tlingit Nation of Alaska said one of her cousins handed her a brochure for IAIA one day and said, “This school looks perfect.” She had researched other film programs around the country and couldn’t find what she was looking for — total hands-on production techniques that would teach her everything she needs to know to make a film. “There are classes where you spend the entire time looking over the camera, going over camera safety, passing it around to other students,” she said. “I got to check out lights, the computer software for editing, work on a casting call, work out a budget — they teach you the A to Z of making movies.”
So far it’s working for Benally. “IAIA has helped me formulate the know-how to get to where I am today,” she said. “IAIA’s students are not trying to make films about fathers or tomahawks or tepees. We’re adamant about pushing everybody’s unique perspective and trying to create and culminate everyone’s vision.”
Above, Razelle Benally with first assistant cameraman Ryan Begay and director of photography David Schweitzer Opposite page, Benally with actors MorningStar Angeline and Ehren Kee Natay; photos Peshawn Bread/Autumn Billie
IAIA’s students are not trying to make films about fathers or tomahawks or tepees. We’re adamant about pushing everybody’s unique perspective and trying to create and culminate everyone’s vision. — film student Razelle Benally
Student Kenneth Johnson (Creek/Muskogee) during the 2015 IAIA Safety Summit; below, onlooker during the 2014 IAIA Powwow; photos Jason S. Ordaz