First Nations\First Features: A Showcase of World Indigenous Film and Media

Archived website @ MoMA

May 12-23, 2005

Screenings and symposium in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Festival Overview

First Nations\First Features celebrates the groundbreaking feature films of indigenous directors from around the globe. Over the past two decades, these filmmakers have broken barriers to native film production, garnering major awards worldwide, from Cannes to Sundance to Kautokeino. The works featured in this showcase, whether classics or premieres, are “firsts” for their directors and the First Nations’ communities they come from. Drawing on both traditional and contemporary experiences, the films offer gripping stories—from warrior legends to current dilemmas of family and identity—that bring audiences into the dramas of these very different worlds with their distinctive narratives and aesthetics.

First Nations\First Features will be held May 12-23 in New York City at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and associated screening sites.

More than twenty feature films, including three key documentaries, and several short fictions will screen in each city. The directors will introduce and discuss their work throughout the showcase. They hail from a host of First Nations communities, including Indigenous Australian, Inuit, Maori, Native North and South American, Nenet, Rotuman, and Sami.

On Thursday, March 12, 1:00-4:00 p.m., the directors will participate in a public symposium, “Cultural Creativity and Cultural Rights: On and Off Screen,” at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

Organized by Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, Department of Film and Media, The Museum of Modern Art; Elizabeth Weatherford, Director, Film and Video Center, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian; Faye Ginsburg, Director, Center for Media, Culture, and History, and Center for Religion and Media, Department of Anthropology, New York University; and Pegi Vail, filmmaker and independent curator.

How the Showcase Came About

The curators and institutions working together on First Nations/First Features have been showcasing indigenously produced media and collaborating in their support of indigenous directors for almost three decades.

Indigenously-directed feature films first debuted in the late 1980s when three prize-winning works—the Oscar-nominated Pathfinder (1987) by Sami director Nils Gaup, Ngati (1987) by Maori director Barry Barclay, and Mauri (1988) by Maori filmmaker Merata Mita—launched a new direction that began to take root in other parts of the world.

In the 1990s, Abenaki filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin’s 1993 award-winning epic documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance and Arapaho/Cheyenne director Chris Eyre’s Sundance festival favorite Smoke Signals (1998) brought Native North American films into international circulation, building on the breakthrough 1984 work Itam Hakim Hopiit by Hopi media artist Victor Masayesva, Jr. Around the same time, Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (1995), one of New Zealand’s highest grossing films, catapulted Maori filmmakers into the global spotlight; in Australia and beyond, Rachel Perkins’ (Arrernte/Kalkadoon) first feature, Radiance (1998), was receiving accolades. In Bolivia, an indigenous cinema movement was taking shape during the 1990s as well, producing a number of short features, including Angels of the Earth (2001) by Patricio Luna (Aymara), and Loving Each Other in the Shadows (2001) by Marcelina Cardenas (Quechua).

2001 witnessed the long-awaited debut of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner by Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk, which received the prestigious Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival and subsequently enjoyed a remarkable international run.

This cascade of work into the new millennium provoked the New York-based festival organizers to bring first features from First Nations communities worldwide together in a showcase that recognized their overall contribution to world cinema.

Launching this series at two newly expanded major American venues—the redesigned Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the long-awaited new home for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.—makes a powerful statement to the film world. The prestige and leadership of these institutions, along with New York University’s Center for Religion and Media, give this outstanding program the kind of visibility it deserves in a mainstream setting. It also provides an unprecedented opportunity for New York City and Washington, D.C. audiences to encounter the directors and their extraordinary films.

A Note On The Title:

“First Nations/First Features” refers to the recent development of fiction and non-fiction feature-length film and media works by indigenous directors. Collectively, this work has established an emergent world cinema; storytelling that reflects indigenous cultural worlds, histories, aesthetics, and political concerns, building on a longer history of indigenous media production—video, satellite television, and radio.

“First Nations” is a term that came into common usage in the 1970s in Canada. Now, the term is used more broadly. It highlights the distinctive political relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the nation-state, as well as the need for continuity of cultural traditions, beliefs and languages, and ongoing rights to land, resources, and self-determination—vital issues for indigenous people everywhere.