The story came to her at the height of the Bosnian War: a peacemaker who breaks through the complex grief that life often embodies. But beyond the plot of her 2009 movie Kissed by Lightning, Mohawk filmmaker Shelley Niro wanted to present Iroquois characters that weren’t bleak or one-dimensional like the ones she saw growing up in popular film.
That common goal to explore the depth of Native American culture through film is at the heart of the inaugural Pocahontas Reframed: Native American Storytellers Film Festival, which runs November 17–19 in Richmond at the historic Byrd Theater. “Seeing art created by Native filmmakers, you see layers of thought to the characters on film,” said Niro, who resides in Ontario and seeks through this and her other films to create a nuanced look at Native American culture.
The three-day event was organized to foster greater awareness of and exposure to indigenous languages, cultures and societies by featuring film and live performances celebrating Native American stories and storytellers. Artists, authors, cineastes, and actors will all be there to discuss their passion for cinema with audience members. The festival organizers hope it will be an educational opportunity for tribal members, students, educators, and the public.
Brad Brown, Assistant Chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, is the festival’s director. He saw a real need on the East Coast for a festival like this to “reframe the conversation about Native Americans.” He said most people in Virginia don’t know that these communities still exist. While there are eleven tribes recognized by the Commonwealth, they only started receiving that official status in the early 1980s, and the Pamunkey Indian Tribe is the only one to have been federally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “We’re not gone,” he said, “We’re still here.”
The idea started from a class that Peter Kirkpatrick taught at Virginia Commonwealth University on Native American film in 2015. Kirkpatrick, a co-founder of Richmond’s French Film Festival, reached out to friend, actor, and French Film Festival board member George Aguillar to help students research with primary sources he knew within the Native American film scene. That started a conversation around the subject.
The more they spoke to others about it, the more energy the idea picked up, even attracting celebrity sponsors like Francis Ford Coppola. Locally, they found strong support from organizations like American Evolution 2019 Commemoration and people like Sam Proctor, CEO of Froehling & Robertson, who is of Native American heritage. Kirkpatrick said they were asked, “Why Virginia? Why not Los Angeles?” His answer: “Because this is where first contact happened in 1607 and this is where dialogue didn’t take place. It’s where it should take place now.”
Like the French Film Festival, directors and actors will be present for post-viewing questions and to interact with the audience throughout the weekend. Friday will be a retrospective of Native American film, followed by films that tackle stereotypes and misconceptions Saturday, and films by and about Native American women on Sunday.
Brown said that most of these films don’t get exposure in large markets, but there are a couple of exceptions. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, a feature documentary about the role of Native Americans in popular music history, was shown at Sundance and garnered accolades there. Te Ata, a film based on the true story of Native American performer Mary Thompson Fisher, is also a multiple award winner at festivals around the nation.
The full slate of entertainment includes twelve films over three days, plus live performances. Friday’s schedule opens with Seasons, a French film by Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud that delves into the deep ties between humankind and the natural world. Following that, The Silent Enemy, a 1930 silent film, will be shown with accompaniment by internationally recognized organist Michael Britt at the console of the Byrd Theatre’s Mighty Wurlitzer organ. Next up is 1961’s The Exiles, which depicts a group of young Native Americans who had left their reservations under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956.
Saturday will feature Reel Injun, a documentary about the evolution of the depiction of First Nations people on film from the silent era to today. Following that is a Smithsonian Channel documentary that looks beyond the myth to reveal the real story of Pocahontas. The Doctrine of Discovery is next, telling the story of how little-known Vatican documents from the fifteenth-century resulted in a tragic global momentum of domination and dehumanization. Rumble and Neither Wolf Nor Dog, a 2016 film based on the novel by Kent Neburn, finish out the day.
Along with Kissed By Lightning and Te Ata, Sunday will feature A Thousand Voices, a documentary on the invasion of the American Southwest and how those invasions changed the roles of women; Every Emotion Costs, an exploration of the reality of returning home on the reserve to face family, community, and death; and First Daughter & The Black Snake, a documentary that follows a woman who seeks to keep crude oil pipelines out of her community’s sacred wild rice beds.
As for live events, Comedy troupe The 1491s and rapper Nataanii Means will be performing on Saturday. Additionally, Mohawk composer and singer ElizaBeth Hill will perform on Sunday. There will also be a discussion with her and Niro to discuss the score of Kissed By Lightning after its presentation.
For Niro, all this programming offers a more comprehensive understanding of Native culture in an accessible manner. It also demonstrates to audiences that “there’s a lot going on. I think they’ll see there’s a lot out there—performance art, film, books—for anyone who looks for it.”
Brown is already planning next year’s event and said that themes are already emerging; for example, the experience of Native American veterans. For Kirkpatrick, a festival like this is “about contact with art and meeting the creators.” He said awareness and appreciation of the Native culture that is here in Virginia, as well as around the country, can only broaden and enrich the lives of non-Native audience members. “The key word here is storytellers,’’ he said. “This is a culture of storytelling, and this festival seeks to reframe the conversation through that tradition.”
Pocahontas Reframed: Native American Storytellers Film Festival will be held on November 17-19 at The Byrd Theater. Admission is free, but seating is limited. To register and see the full event schedule, visit pocahontasreframed.com.