New Virginia Film Festival Spotlights Native American Cinema | Community Idea Stations


New Virginia Film Festival Spotlights Native American Cinema

There are more than a dozen film festivals in Central Virginia, and this month a new one debuts. Pocahontas Reframed: The Native American Storytellers Film Festival features historic and contemporary films, and will bring American Indian artists and actors to Richmond. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.

Learn More: Pocahontas Reframed: The Native American Storytellers Film Festival takes place November 17-19 at the Byrd Theater in Richmond. Read more about some of the historic films being screened, including the 1930 New York Times review of The Silent Enemy and the nearly-lost film The Exiles. Find a list of archival films featuring American Indians held at the Library of Congress and hear more music from Nataanii Means.


In 1930, the New York Times published a review for The Silent Enemy, a film that used Native American actors and advisors. The critic described it as engrossing, sincere, authentic, and amazingly photographed. Virginia’s Harry P. Carver directed the production, about hunger and the Ojibwe in Northern Ontario.

Brad Brown: It’s an amazing film, because it’s real. 

Brad Brown is Assistant Chief of the Pamunkey Indian tribe and the Director of Pocahontas Reframed: The Native American Storytellers Film Festival. When the silent film screens in Richmond, musician Michael Britt will perform the original score on the Byrd Theater’s wurlitzer.

Peter Kirkpatrick: There’s this notion of transmotion.

Peter Kirkpatrick is co-founder of the French film festival and teaches a class at VCU on Native American Film.

Kirkpatrick: Some of the energy, some of the filming that you see in this film, from the late 1920s, it’s very specific to Native American film-making already and that type of using the camera, that type of editing, especially performance amongst the actors is already defined in that early part of the history of cinema and it’s something that’s just flourished especially the 1990s and the last 15-20 years.

The festival includes more than a dozen films; another classic is The Exiles, a 1961 movie that took three years to make and was rediscovered about a decade ago.

(Clip The Exiles) I’ve always wanted to go and get away from my people and go someplace different….

Shot in Los Angeles's Bunker Hill not long before the neighborhood was demolished, the film examines what it was like for young people in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the US government encouraged American Indians to leave reservations.

The documentaries Reel Injun and Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth give viewers an opportunity to rethink common but inaccurate portrayals of American Indians.

(Clip: Reel Injun) For so long you probably thought that Indians never had a sense of humor. We never thought you were too funny either.

Brown and Kirkpatrick say dispelling stereotypes is one goal, another is getting people to look at things from a new vantage point.

Brown: There's a lot of people that live in Virginia that don't know that there are still Indians here. You know there are two reservations and 11 tribes in Virginia and a lot of people don't know that so that's part of the part of the conversation.

Kirkpatrick: Another aspect of the conversation is also how we as human beings, how we perceive the world around us and in the case of film since it is the Native American storytellers Film Festival as well it's also about how we perceive and come to understand and come in contact with, through film other, ways of perceiving the world Imagining the world. And as a professor of film studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and teaching Native American Cinema, my students have just discovered this new way not only of cinema, but a new way of understanding themselves, the world around them.

Kirkpatrick says the work of Native American filmmakers led scholars to create a new category: “the third eye” or the “Fourth Cinema.” He says the first cinema is commercial, like the big Hollywood movies. The second is avant garde, the third is “post-colonial,” filmmakers responding to injustice.

Kirkpatrick: And Native American filmmakers have actually, because of their creativity in storytelling not only the oral tradition, but now the visual tradition. They have their own sovereignty and agency in the way they tell stories, so this creates a whole new space, a whole new understanding of time, and it allows us as viewers to also check who we are in life, and what we've done, who we’ve come in contact with.  And and as Brad as mentioned, this festival is actually, going back to have a conversation that unfortunately never took place in 1607.

(Clip Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth) In 1613, Pocahontas becomes the Colonies unlikely saviour…

Komp: Pocahontas: Beyond the Myth, this is a very important film for the Pamunkeys?

Brown: This film was made by the Smithsonian and it explores who Pocahontas really was, there are so many misconceptions about her. Was she a hero, was she a traitor, was she a captor, was she kidnapped? It’s hard to tell. She was Pamunkey and she didn’t live very long, she married John Rolfe, moved to England, had one child and died shortly after that. The Smithsonian, they do a great job obviously on the film and it really does deal with all the misconceptions. Most people think of the Disney story of her and John Smith falling in love and all of that, none of that is true. She was 11 years old when she met John Smith so it wasn’t a romance.

A number of new feature and documentary films will also be screened.

(Clip Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World) There was a song, that came on the radio, a guitar instrumental and it changed everything.

The award-winning Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World looks at Native Americans over-locked contributions to music, like guitarist Link Wray and Buffy Sainte Marie.

(Clip Rumble: the Indians Who Rocked the World) There was this key expression, be proud you’re an Indian, but be careful who you tell… All of a sudden I was talking about Native American issues on big time television and all of a sudden everything disappeared.

(Clip First Daughter and the Black Snake, Winona Laduke) There’s this prophecy called the Time of the Seventh Fire, we’re told we have a choice between two paths.

First Daughter and the Black Snake follows acclaimed writer and activist Winona LaDuke as she an effort to stop an oil pipeline in Minnesota.

(Clip First Daughter and the Black Snake, Winona Laduke) We’re in a situation which is extreme, extreme behavior. That’s when you no longer want convention and instead you want to get oil from the tar sands of Canada.   

Brad Brown says it’s the backstory to the massive Standing Rock protests in South Dakota in 2016.

Brown: Her name Winona is Ojibwe way for first daughter and the black snake is the oil pipeline or the oil trains. It goes back to a story of the seventh fire which is a dream that there is going to be two paths: one is going to be a green path to the future and one is going to be a dark black path and that kind of the oil represents the black path and going to be an environmentally sound way is is the green path to the future, so it's a it's a story about that.

(Clip Every Emotion Counts) What do you want from me Juniper? You want me to break down, fall to the ground?

One day of the festival is focusing on Native American women, both their experiences and their work as filmmakers. Two feature films are included, Kissed by Lightning and Every Emotion Counts.

(Clip Every Emotion Counts) We are never going to understand each other!... Come on girls, let’s calm down...

The festival is also bringing Native American performers to Richmond, including the comedy group the 1491s, Mohawk singer/songwriter Elizabeth Hill and Oglala Sioux and Navajo hip-hop artist Nataanii Means, son of Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means.

(Nataanii Means Music)

Brown: We're still here, I think that's one of the stories that we want to tell is that Native Americans are still here.  We don't live in teepees, we don't smoke peace pipes - at least I don't. We're in the community, we’re teachers and lawyers and doctors and filmmakers, and I think part of the purpose is educational and cultural and it's also entertainment. We really want people to come to the festival and enjoy the films and see there’s some really great films that aren’t being showed in the theaters on a Friday night. That’s really a lot of what we’re trying to do, expose these filmmakers, actors and actresses to the public - so they can enjoy it.

Pocahontas Reframed takes place November 17 through the 19th at the Byrd Theater in Richmond. It will be free for the first few years and organizers hope it becomes the premier Native American Film Festival on the East Coast. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.