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Indigenous Filmmaker, Heather Rae | Image Source:

This year’s artist spotlight at imagineNATIVE is on prominent North American Indigenous filmmaker, Heather Rae. Rae has three prolific films screened at the festival this year: the groundbreaking documentary Trudell, Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner Frozen River, and the Canadian premier of the Indigenous horror flick, Wind Walkers. With a lengthy career spanning over 20 years and 36 films, it was her work on Trudell that became a defining moment not only in her career but within Indigenous cinema as well.

Trudell tells the life story of activist, poet and artist John Trudell. From leading the takeover of Alcatraz in 1969 to burning the American flag on the footsteps of FBI headquarters, the activist leader stopped short of nothing to bring American Indigenous issues to the forefront.

Rae interweaves compelling interview clips with reels and archival news footage, mixing Trudell’s spoken word poems with Indigenous traditional music to reflect the life of the charismatic leader. Rae paints Trudell as a warrior, educator and advocate of Indigenous rights who is strongly opinionated and eloquently spoken – a threat to the American government. Trudell raises the question: how are we supposed sustain the world we live in with the way we treat the earth and each other?

Erica Commanda from MUSKRAT Magazine spoke with Heather Rae about the importance of Indigenous cinema and its evolution over her lengthy career.

MM: Why is Indigenous cinema important?
HR: Movies are basically a modern expression of an archaic form. Storytelling is something that we have been doing since the dawn of Time, it’s a way in which we are able to carry that into our contemporary world. The context of storytelling is how, we as people, identify ourselves and contribute to the larger society that we live in. I think that Indigenous cinema has been in it’s own kind of renaissance for a few decades now, it’s helping the world understand, not only who we are, but that we actually exist.

Promo Film Still of John Trudell in Thunderheart
Promo Film Still of John Trudell in Thunderheart | Image Source:

MM: There are so many important messages in Trudell, what’s the most important lesson that you learned from working with him?
HR: I spent a decade making that movie. I travelled with him throughout the world. The thing that John Trudell did for many, myself included, and particularly Indigenous people, is that he gave us a broader context for what it means to be a human being. Up until the time I became exposed to his words in my early twenties, I was really trying to understand what it meant to be a human being.

When I started listening to John’s words, I began to feel a shift in my whole consciousness. I had a much deeper understanding for what it meant to be a human being. We all need that; we are all looking for that.

MM: How would you describe Indigenous approaches to cinema and storytelling? Would you say that Indigenous cinema has its own genre?
HR: I do believe that Indigenous cinema is it’s own genre, but I would conceptualize it in a global sense. When I think of Maori and Sami cinema, I think of all of it as part of the same genre. It’s essentially the storytelling tradition from the world’s original culture in its modern form.

Indigenous media makers who are really rooted in community based media, for example people who make documentaries or do web based content that serves the community, are really important to Indigenous filmmaking. For me, the documentary that I made about John Trudell, is an important life work, because it was a documentary film that speaks of the American Indian contributions to the civil rights movement in the United States.

MM: You have been a working in the Hollywood film industry for over 20 years now, how would you compare the Indigenous cinema today from when you first started your career? And how would you like to see it evolve?
HR: I started working in the early 90’s, so it’s been about 25 years. I began working in that time with Phil Lucas, who was a prolific Choctaw filmmaker and has since passed away. He is one of my mentors. What really impressed me at that time period was the body of Indigenous filmmakers from all over the world who were doing really effective documentary work and beginning to educate the world by setting the record straight with certain histories and realities.

Since the time that I helped start the Native Program at Sundance and with the creation of other programs like that, there’s been a body of filmmakers that have been working in a narrative form. In many ways Smoke Signals, at least in North America, had really kicked that off because it took such a broad position in the market place. That was 1998. It’s tragic that there has not been another film like that since. There have been some movies that have some Native characters or content, but not a director. So on one hand things have changed, but they haven’t changed quickly enough.

MM: From a professional point of view, what do you believe are the main obstacles Indigenous artists today face and how do you think they can be overcome?
HR: The issues we face today are a profound level of invisibility and a complete absence where our perspectives should be. We’re contending with the ramifications of genocide and the way in which genocide continues through generations. We simply have to combat that and continue to make our presence known, understood and ultimately celebrated.

Heather Rae
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Artist Bio

Heather Rae

Arguably the most prominent Native American producer in Hollywood, Cherokee filmmaker Heather Rae’s 20-year career has spanned documentary and dramatic work, with over 36 films as director, producer and executive producer. Her award-winning work includes producing the twice Academy Award, Sundance Grand Jury Prize and seven-time Spirit Award–nominated Frozen River (2008), for which she received the 2008 Spirit Award for Producer of the Year.

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About The Author

Erica Commanda

Born in Toronto, Erica Commanda (Algonquin/Ojibwe) grew up in the small community of Pikwakanagan. From there she moved across Canada living in Ottawa, Vancouver and now Toronto, working in the bar/hospitality industry, mastering the art of listening to stories from her regulars while slinging and spilling drinks (at them or to them). And now through a series of random decisions and events in life she is on a journey discovering and mastering her own knack for storytelling as Associate Editor for MUSKRAT Magazine.

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