Media Lab Supports Native Filmmakers at SIFF

Sterlin Harjo's 'Mekko' was among SIFF's 2016 indigenous programming. The 2017 Festival lineup will be announced May 4.

For years Tracy Rector has advocated for the Pacific Northwest’s community of Indigenous filmmakers, and has worked to put Seattle on the map as a champion of Native-led film. Indigenous filmmakers are dismally underrepresented in the American film landscape, and not enough is being done to rectify that.

Rector and Longhouse Media, the Native film organization where she’s executive director, have partnered with Seattle International Film Festival for a dozen years to increase Native representation in SIFF programming and to support Native filmmakers by increasing their access to classes and equipment. This month, SIFF presents seven shorts and six feature films by Native filmmakers and hosts the third iteration of 4th World Media Lab, a skill- and community-building opportunity for emerging adult filmmakers. 4th World is the evolution of SIFF and Longhouse’s popular SuperFly program, which focused on youth filmmakers until it ended in 2014.

When Rector cofounded Longhouse in 2005, she started looking for partnerships and growth opportunities with established organizations. “We began as a scrappy Native org just trying to figure out how to get our foot in the door anywhere,” Rector says. “Basically, I walked in and said, ‘Is there anybody who does any sort of education programming? If you give us free marketing because we’re new, we’ll create and run this entire program and it can be under the SIFF umbrella.’”

That sort of hustle was nothing new to her. “As a person of color, as a filmmaker and as a woman in film, I think I’m used to being clever and creative and working super hard and jumping all in.”

SuperFly partnered young filmmakers with older mentors for a rapid-fire film experiment. In 36 hours, some 50 filmmakers from around the country came together to storyboard, shoot and edit five films based on one script—the first year’s script was written by Sherman Alexie—in time for a screening of their work during SIFF.

“The idea was to set the bar high, keep the pressure on and complete the projects for an immediate public screening, which resulted in quick recognition and positive feedback,” Rector says.

Longhouse wanted to create an integrated learning experience for a diverse group of students, 50–70 percent of whom were Native-identified. “That provided a natural learning environment for cross-cultural dialogue based in the common experience of media-making,” Rector says. A different tribal community hosted the group each year, all the stories were centered in Native themes, and travel, housing, food and lodging costs were covered, so finances wouldn’t be a barrier to entry.

The final SuperFly, in 2014, was hosted by the Snoqualmie Tribe. Then Rector, sensing a shift in the needs of the community and a desire for change herself, shook the successful SuperFly program up and created 4th World Media Lab. The new program, which focuses on industry training and networking rather than trial-by-fire film production, fills a void in continuing education opportunities for emerging adult Indigenous filmmakers.

“I became really aware, doing film programming at Northwest Film Forum and with SIFF, that the number of Native-made films seemed to be declining,” Rector says. “And this seemed to be a trend here in the States, but not in Canada or New Zealand, where Indigenous filmmaking was blowing up big time. I was trying to figure out what the hell is going on?” What was going on, she realized, is that those countries put a lot more money into supporting both the arts and Indigenous communities.

Rector set out to try and level our playing field, fostering artists with the same fierce, compassionate drive that she applies to her own work. She’s a Sundance Institute Lab Fellow, serves on the Seattle Arts Commission, and her films have been shown on PBS’ Independent Lens and at Cannes Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and many more.

“The film and media world is competitive, run by white men, and does not make a lot of room for people of color or women—unless you live in Seattle, where we as women dominate!” Rector says. “In terms of Indigenous filmmakers, I’ve heard that the statistic is around .46 percent,” she says. “Less than one percent of film and media makers identify as Indigenous, which is heartbreaking given the amazing creative talent and stories within Native communities.”

Some major festivals pointedly support Indigenous filmmakers, including Sundance’s Native Lab, Tribeca’s All-Access Program, Cine Las Americas in Austin and Big Sky in Missoula. SIFF, Rector says, has an opportunity to lead the way by committing to keep their diverse pool of emerging filmmakers up-to-date and by making Native programming permanent.

This year, 4th World Media Lab’s 12 fellows will focus on VR filmmaking skills, the cutting-edge technologies behind a media language that’s still being invented. “With SuperFly we wanted to train the next generation of media makers, but with 4th World we needed to fill the gap of training and access to skills to nurture those people who’ve been trying hard to take their craft to the next level, keep up with current trends, or to simply build community, to not do the work in isolation.”