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From the Labs: Native Lab Advisors Cultivate Space for Indigenous Storytellers


[Back row: Dana Ledoux Miller, Andrew Ahn, Alex Lazarowich, Eva Grant; middle row: Quinne Larsen, Cian Elyse White, Anpa'o Locke; front row: Jana Schmieding, Jennifer Reeder, Taylor Hensel]

By Stephanie Ornelas

As BIPOC and Indigenous people, you are always bringing something new to the table because our stories are so left on the side and aren't told. Each person who's a part of this lab is bringing a unique vision that has never been shared with the world before.

- Alex Lazarowich, 2023 Sundance Institute Native Lab creative advisor

Four creative advisors and five fellows spent the last week in Santa Fe, New Mexico, partaking in the dynamic collaborative experience that is the Sundance Institute 2023 Native Lab. Following the lab's online component, which took place May 1-5, filmmakers journeyed to Santa Fe for six days to meet and learn from each other in person. Designed to help filmmakers from Native and Indigenous backgrounds improve original projects, the lab gives fellows the opportunity to create under the guidance of experienced creative advisors. This year, those advisors are Alex Lazarowich, Andrew Ahn, Jennifer Reeder, and Dana Ledoux Miller.

Just before the in-person portion of the lab kicked off on May 8, we met virtually with Lazarowich, Ahn, Reeder, and Ledoux to talk about participating in the program as mentors and advisors. Looking back at their own experiences early on in their careers, they each explain why programs like the Native Lab are so vital to emerging Indigenous filmmakers and what this kind of mentorship would have meant to them when they were starting out. And while each advisor offers unique guidance to fellows in the program, they all share the same understanding that the lab is a safe space to be creative, and filmmakers shouldn't be afraid to go beyond what the film industry has typically expected from Indigenous storytellers.

Here's what the creative advisors have to say about the experience and the advice they offered 2023 fellows and emerging artists:

Alex Lazarowich | Fast Horse, 2019 Sundance Film Festival (Special Jury Award for Directing); Sweet Home Reservation, 2021 Native Filmmakers Lab)

Alex Lazarowich speaks to fellows at the 2023 Native Lab I don't profess to know everything. I can only bring the experiences that I've had. I'm trying to give very tangible advice that people can walk away with and feel confident moving forward in their career.

Lazarowich is no stranger to the programs at Sundance Institute - as a filmmaker, an advisor, and a fellow herself. Her short Fast Horse screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, and in 2021, Lazarowich received support through the Institute's Native Lab for her feature-length romantic comedy Sweet Home Reservation.

I learned so much from the other fellows, and I think that's what's really nice about any of the Indigenous programs at Sundance, explains Lazarowich. One of the most powerful things about Sundance is that it's truly and authentically about building a network and building your career.

It continues to shape who you are as a filmmaker, and it allows you to connect with other people who are also pursuing the same things as you. That's where great collaboration happens, continues Lazarowich.

It's also about having the opportunity to tell your story as authentically as possible, Lazarowich stresses. And the only way to do that is to let experienced Indigenous artists take the reins as educators, advisors, and decision-makers.

Taylor Hensel, Adam Piron, and Alex Lazarowich at the 2023 Native Lab It allows other Indigenous folks to help give feedback for those projects without coming at it in a colonized white voice, she says of the lab. What's great about [Native Lab] and why it's important is that it allows other Indigenous people to provide solidarity and also to provide an actual contextual basis for the industry that allows other [artists] to flourish.

Through her own projects and as a creative advisor, Lazarowich is striving to show a new perspective on what comprises Indigenous cinema.

I think there is sort of a false idea that Indigenous cinema has to be about traditions, or trauma, or sadness, she says. But my goal is to always offer an alternate reality to people who are watching the films that I make. And joy is a huge part of it. I also think laughter is a huge part of it. And I think complexity is a huge part of it. Sometimes the Indigenous community gets painted as a pan-Indigenous community, and that's not true.

What we're doing is reaching across to people who may have not known what Indigenous people look like, sound like, the things they've experienced - they are now seeing it and understanding our way of life.

Advice for fellows: Lean on the kindness of the people who are part of the group, and lean into the kindness [of] the advisors and the people who surround the Sundance organization. We all have your best interest at heart. Sometimes you need an outside perspective.

Andrew Ahn | Dol (First Birthday), 2012 Sundance Film Festival; Spa Night, 2016 Sundance Film Festival; Native Speaker, 2017 FilmTwo Fellowship Grant; This Close, 2018 Sundance Film Festival

Andrew Ahn poses with fellows I was really compelled to be an advisor for Sundance [Native Lab] because it's a program that I interacted with before, and I see how [it] supports young Native filmmakers in a way I think is really special and allows people to tell really meaningful stories, Ahn says. I'm really looking forward to working with the Sundance team. I've known Adam Piron, [Director of Sundance Institute's Indigenous Program] for years, and I think that the work he does is super meaningful.

For Ahn, it's also about giving back to a community that's supp
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