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alterNative Film Festival showcases Indigenous movies from across North America

Wichita's first film festival devoted entirely to Indigenous filmmakers runs today through Sunday at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum. It's called the alterNative Film Festival, and it's the creation of Wichita filmmaker Rodrick Pocowatchit, who's showcasing Indigenous movies from across North America. KMUW's Fletcher Powell recently sat down with Pocowatchit to find out what he's got in store.

Fletcher Powell: So, let's start with the festival itself. Just give people a basic idea of what they might expect attending the festival.

Rodrick Pocowatchit: Well, it's going to feature all films that are either by or about Indigenous people and for this first year, I'm curating it just from my travels and film festivals and filmmakers I've met throughout the years, and I'm curating it with my favorite films over the past few years that I think people need to be need to see. They just have no idea that these films are out there. And I just can't wait to share them. I've got films from across the country, from Canada, from Hawaii. So yeah, there's just a very, very eclectic, diverse set films that people are going to be able to watch. I approached the Indian Museum about this about a year ago, and of course, you know, the world blew up. So when things were starting to reopen, I approached them again and they loved the idea just right off the bat. So, it's been a joy to work with them and, just, support from the community in general has been really supportive and enthusiastic. So, I'm just really happy that that's happening, that we're going into it with that energy. And we wanted to make it free, we wanted to make it a gift to the community. So, that was very intentional from the beginning.

Fletcher Powell: You mentioned films from over the past couple of years—Now, for a good part of my life, Smoke Signals was the one movie that people would mention when they talked about Native filmmakers with relatively high-profile films. Over the past couple of years—and that's not to denigrate Smoke Signals in any way, I like the movie very much—but over the past couple of years, it seems like we are seeing at least a smattering more of movies made by Native filmmakers, Indigenous filmmakers. Do you think it's just a matter of resources?

Rodrick Pocowatchit: Yeah, I think a lot of it is resources. Smoke Signals certainly broke ground, you know, it won the audience award at Sundance and got distribution, theatrical distribution, and sort of became the Cinderella story that all Native filmmaker sort of strived to be. I do think that opened a lot of doors, but I think there was still a long ways to go. Even though there have been film festivals for, I mean, the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco this year is celebrating its 45th year, LA Skins Fest in L.A. is celebrating its 15th year. I mean, there have been festivals celebrating and showcasing this work. It's just, people just don't know they're there. But I think a lot of it is resources, it's hard to get funding, and in the end, it is a business. So, I don't think studios have been too open to showcasing Native people's work because it's a very iffy proposition. You know, they have to make money and they want to invest in things that are going to make them money. But I think with this year, just with the success of the TV shows like, Reservation Dogs was a huge hit, I think that has even helped more so. Like right now, at this very moment, people are noticing Native people amongst themselves. And for Native people, it's a chance for us to see us represented, which I think is fantastic. I mean, we're the least represented in mass pop culture and that's one of my goals is to get more Indigenous representation in mainstream pop culture. And that's kind of what I hope to do with this festival is help in some small way, let people know that these films are out there. These filmmakers are brilliant and their work deserves to be seen.

Fletcher Powell: Right, I think that's a really good point is that a lot of this has been here. It's just a matter of getting it seen. And it's a matter of having that distribution. And so, when you've got something like Hulu, that's willing to, obviously, partner with Taika Waititi, which helps, and Sterlin Harjo, which helps—but when they're willing to do that and put something like Reservation Dogs out there, or, it seems like Canada, in particular, is putting more money behind the Indigenous filmmakers. One of the movies you have, Blood Quantum, is from Canada. A movie I just saw called Beans, which was at the Toronto Film Festival last year, I think, also it takes place in the same general area, in Quebec. And so there are people willing now to put at least a bit of money behind distributing those movies in addition to making them.

Rodrick Pocowatchit: Yeah, I think so, too. Canada does have some funding available for Indigenous filmmakers. I mean, it's super competitive, it's not like they're just standing there handing money out to everyone, but there is that, that funding does exist. So that definitely helps those filmmakers there. In the U.S., there's not so much, that kind of distribution yet. I mean, I'm hoping that changes. That's one of the things I hope to achieve is to be able to fund up-and-coming filmmakers with my festival. So I'm starting small, very, very small and grassroots, and I just hope to grow from there. And hopefully we just take off.

Fletcher Powell: I'm curious what you think about something else. As you mentioned, representation of course, is drastically important. I think there's also a lot of value in the more difficult emotions that you can express through filmmaking. I'm thinking particularly of the value of showing real anger. And Blood Quantum certainly has that. There was another movie, Wild Indian, which came out this year, which was difficult in a lot of ways, but also had that real anger in it. And I think being able to express that is very valuable, no matter how difficult it might be.

Rodrick Pocowatchit: No, I think so too. I mean, yeah. I mean, there's a lot for us to be angry about, you know? So I think showing that is an honest depiction, and no matter what circumstances they're in, I think that needs to be expressed. The short film that's opening before Blood Quantum, our opening night film, is A Red Girl’s Reasoning, and it's about this girl who was sexually assaulted and takes it upon herself to become a vigilante, to rescue other women who are going through the same thing and take revenge on their attackers. So it's a very, especially now, it's a very urgent story. And this came out in, quite a while ago, maybe 10 years ago, but even right now, it's still a very valid, urgent story. And that just goes to show how vibrant and meaningful these stories are, that they have legs that they, years later, can still say things, a commentary about how Native people have been depicted and treated and how hopefully that's changing.

Fletcher Powell: Your festival is by no means a horror movie festival, but it does lean a little bit in that direction. And you, yourself have made horror movies. What is it that's attractive about horror movies, maybe for Indigenous filmmakers, or maybe for more marginalized populations?

Rodrick Pocowatchit: Yeah, that was kind of it just a little accident that I ended up with so much horror, but I definitely want this to be a different kind of film festival. It's not your typical staid, stuffy film festival. I want it to have some energy and take some chances. And I think Native filmmakers might be drawn to horror tales because we have a lot of beliefs and we have a lot of legends and those are ripe to be told and shared. And it also presents a side of ourselves that most people never see, you know, a Native person in a horror film or a Native horror tale. I mean, there's been tons over the years. So, yeah, it was just kind of an accident that I ended up with so much horror. But there's also, for people who aren't into horror, I don't want them to be turned off or scared of my festival. There's a lot of other options, too. And one of the things I'm super proud about is the shorts film programmings. There's three programs, one Saturday afternoon, and two Sunday afternoon, and they are super eclectic. They range in genre from comedy, to romance, to musical, to documentaries. So yeah, I'm really super proud about the shorts programs. And that was just another chance for me to show many more filmmakers in this one venue. Because that's also what I'm super proud about is, as being another venue for these films to be seen.

Fletcher Powell: Right. And that's just another way of showing just how many filmmakers there actually are who are working.

Rodrick Pocowatchit: Yes, yes. There are tons working in the trenches. A lot of them are self-funded, self-produced. But this work that we're going to show is in no way lower par or—you know, I mean, it's low budget, but it certainly stands up against bigger budget films. Because I think we're resourceful. I mean, Native, Indigenous people have had to be resourceful and that carries over into their art, whatever form it is. We do a lot with very little.

Rodrick Pocowatchit is the founder of the alterNative Film Festival. The festival begins tonight and runs through Sunday, a full schedule is at alterNativeFilmFestival.org.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.