Arts & Entertainment: Indigenous peoples get a front row seat at Seattle International Film Festival

// Native American youth convene in Seattle for 36-hour filmmaking challenge

  • 'SMOKE SIGNALS.' Accomplished actor Tantoo Cardinal plays Arlene in Sherman Alexie's award winning film "Smoke Signals," being shown at a free screening on May 17 at Snoqualmie Casino. (Photo courtesy of Park Circus)

  • SUPERFLY. Young Native American filmmakers get a chance to put their skills to the test in the 36-hour filmmaking challenge Superfly. Their on-the-fly short films will be shown June 1 at the Harvard Exit Theater in Seattle. (Photo By John Marshall (Muscogee Creek))

The 39th annual Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) kicks off on May 16, and organizers are especially excited about this year’s Native American programs, which promise to be a highlight of the fest.

At the Snoqualmie Casino in Snoqualmie and the Harvard Exit Theater in Seattle, feature-length films and shorts by and about indigenous peoples will be screened including premieres and youth-made films. There will be Q&A sessions, visiting actors and more to complete this focus on Native American contributions to the world of modern cinema.

Not all film festivals so enthusiastically embrace indigenous artists like SIFF does, making Seattle’s festival a standout and become a leader in encouraging other film festivals to include the works of Native Americans.

Tracy Rector (Seminole) is founder and executive director of Longhouse Media in Seattle, a nationally recognized Native media arts organization that has partnered with SIFF for the past eight years.

“As an indigenous filmmaker and having spent time in the indigenous filmmaker circuit, there are certainly festivals like Tribeca and Sundance that support and nurture Native filmmaking and the exhibition of indigenous films,” she said. “But in my experience, (SIFF) is really rare and a unique opportunity. Having a (Native American) film showcase at SIFF, for a lot of indigenous filmmakers it opens the door to more opportunities. When the films have premiered here they’re able to use that acknowledgement and that platform to get into film markets that may not have recognized them before, so it’s really an opportunity to support the future of Native filmmaking.”


First up will be a celebration of Native American cinema on May 17 at the Snoqualmie Casino. Admission is free, 21+ only. The evening begins at 6 p.m. with a retrospective of short films created by youth over the past seven years involved in the SIFF/Longhouse Media program SuperFly (read more about this program below) and other short films from around the Puget Sound tribal region with representation from Lummi, Muckleshoot, Suquamish and other tribes. At 7:30 p.m., there will be a free public screening of Sherman Alexie’s “Smoke Signals” to honor this remarkable film’s 15th anniversary. Three actors from the film are expected to be in attendance for a question-and-answer session following the film – Evan Adams, Michelle St. John and Elaine Miles.

“It’ll be a fabulous night at the casino, and an opportunity to experience SIFF and Native American cinema free of charge,” said SIFF Educational Programs Manager Dustin Kaspar.


More films made by Native American youth are on tap for the eighth annual SuperFly Filmmaking Experience, which has been part of SIFF since 2005. SIFF’s education arm for youth, FutureWave, and Longhouse Media join forces to produce the annual SuperFly, in which filmmakers and actors aged 13-19 showcase their skills, collaborate with other artists, and premier original work during SIFF. SuperFly is Longhouse Media’s keystone program as an organization and it has always a hit with SIFF audiences.

It works like this: On May 30, 50 young people, the majority of whom are Native American, and 20 adult mentors from across the country will convene in Seattle, be split into seven or eight teams for production, soundtrack, animation and photography, and be given just 36 hours to storyboard, direct, shoot and edit a collection of unique stories based in the Suquamish Tribal Community, home of Chief Sealth (Seattle). SuperFly Filmmaking challenges filmmakers by condensing the filmmaking process into a tight production schedule with limitations imposed on time, funds and other resources. Then just four hours after completion, the five short films will be debuted to the public at the Harvard Exit Theater on Capitol Hill (807 E. Roy St.) at 4 p.m.

In past years, the student participants were charged with making their film based on a narrative story by an established Native writer, but this year SuperFly is going into documentary mode with the Suquamish Tribe.

Rector said preparations have been underway for the past three months. “Doing documentaries means we (Longhouse Media) have more work to do so we’ve been working with the tribal community figuring out stories that are okay to tell and getting community input,” she said. “We started out with something like 120 ideas and brought those down to seven ideas.

“The tribes are so individual and beautiful in their own way up here, and it’s really great this year to be able to highlight how different Suquamish is and their stories,” she continued. “And being the birthplace of Chief Sealth, it’s a great opportunity to remind people that we’re on indigenous land and that the city is named for a very important indigenous leader.”

Additional short films will be shown at this event as well:

Barefoot (United States premiere): In a tight-knit Cree community in northern Saskatchewan, 16-year-old Alyssa’s plans to become a mom begin to unravel.

"Hummingbird:" The hummingbird dives and darts with great agility, representing fertility and joy. Huitzilopochtli is an expression of willpower, strength and survival carried forward through dance.

"In Your Heart:" A young guitar player really puts his heart into his music.

"We Prayed in Water:" Going to water was once a very common place for morning prayers of the Cherokee people. They now face issues and fears of the pollution in the local streams and rivers.

"Wind:" Young Nodin expresses his Anishnabe cultural pride through hip-hop dancing.

Also included at this year's SuperFly screening will be a live acoustic performance by returning SuperFly mentors Them Savages.

Tickets to the SuperFly showcase at the Harvard Exit Theater are $12 for general admission, $10 for SIFF members. Visit for ticket information and everything you need to know about the Seattle International Film Festival, which runs through June 9. This year SIFF will screen 447 films: 272 features (plus four secret films), and 175 shorts representing 85 countries, including 49 world premieres (18 features, 31 shorts), 48 North American premieres (38 features, 10 shorts) and 17 United States premieres (six features, 11 shorts).


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