PHOENIX — For more than a decade, Missouri-based filmmaker Christian Rozier has been spending time on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in eastern Arizona, where he’s collaborated with Indigenous community members using film as a storytelling platform. “We used a very participatory model,” he told Hyperallergic. “Everyone worked in front of the camera but also behind it; everyone interviewed each other and filmed each other … I was so personally inspired by my time there, and their unbelievable reservoirs of creativity,” Rozier said during the run-up to this year’s Indie Film Fest in Phoenix, where the feature film Apache Leap (2023) that he directed will anchor the festival’s inaugural Original Storytellers Night on February 22.

Filmed on the reservation and in the nearby city of Globe, the coming-of-age drama considers family expectations, financial challenges, and other pressures facing a young man who dreams of being an artist. Making Apache Leap was part of a larger initiative focused on cultivating and sustaining a growing community of filmmakers in San Carlos, through an organization called the Native Arts Film Academy, which is just beginning to ramp back up after taking a pandemic pause. 

“The idea to make Apache Leap was sparked from a few students saying we should make a film,” according to Carrie Sage Curley, one of the film’s cast members. “It’s time for more Indigenous people to be on this platform, and to use the platform to support each other.” Rozier explained, “Most film production over the last 100 years on Indigenous land in North America has had a very extractive, non-inclusive orientation. Our approach is radically inclusive and deeply communal.”

Working behind the scenes on Apache Leap, dir. Christian Rozier (2023)

Short documentaries being shown during Original Storytellers Night will include From the Mountains to the Sea (2021, dir. Anna Marbrook), which follows tribal leaders from Arizona traveling to New Zealand to meet with Māori peoples who share experiences of protecting an ancestral river. There’s also Art of the People (2017, dir. Kiril Kirkov), which features artists in Northern Arizona who “share the heart story of Navajo religion, philosophy and way of life through live painting demonstrations.” In addition, the evening will include a screening for a short comedy documentary called “Sheep” (2020). It’s directed by Luke Hunt, a member of the Navajo Nation and Kainai (Blood) Reserve who made the film with family members at his grandmother’s residence. “We like to see true representation on the screen,” said Hunt, who started Creative Natives Productions to help make it happen. Hunt suggests that people looking for Indigenous films search platforms like Vimeo and YouTube. “There are more Native filmmakers out there than people realize.” 

Today, Hunt is in postproduction on a short film about a veterinarian who’s spent decades working in the Navajo Nation. He’s also the director of a film he co-created with designer Eunique Yazzie (Diné), which will serve as the land acknowledgment for the festival. “Land acknowledgments are a hot topic in our community and outside it,” said Yazzie, who cofounded the Cahokia SocialTech + Artspace in the Roosevelt Row arts district with social entrepreneur Melody Lewis (Mojave/Tewa/Hopi). “You have to approach the community and ask them how they want to be acknowledged, and offer space for them to do the land acknowledgment so they are speaking for themselves instead of you speaking for them,” Yazzie said.

Matty Steinkamp, who founded the Indie Film Fest in 2018, plans to make the Original Storytellers Night part of every year’s Indie Film Fest moving forward, so the festival can play an ongoing role in elevating Indigenous voices in the Southwest.

Filmmakers working on Apache Leap, dir. Christian Rozier (2023)

“I love the way Matty is going about this,” Yazzie said. “He lends his studio, his access, and his resources and plugs us in to help us get our ideas off the ground.” Still, Yazzie says she wishes there were more film companies that really understood how to do that. One resource is the Sundance Institute Indigenous Program, which supports Indigenous-created stories through labs, fellowships, screenings, and other gatherings designed to “decolonize the screen,” according to Institute materials posted online. “Only Indigenous voices can tell their stories with dimensionality, and the tools to make that happen are incredibly accessible,” says Rozier. “If you and your group want to do this, you absolutely should do this, and we’re here to share our experiences and lessons learned.” Rozier said he hopes that Apache Leap will inspire more Indigenous people to make their own films, and to support the work of other Indigenous filmmakers. “Even a cell phone can work for filming, which means the barriers for film production have never been lower.”  

“Our highest hope,” explains Rozier, “is that folks who come from different Indigenous communities across the country, continent, and globe will see that this is indeed possible.”

Filming Apache Leap, dir. Christian Rozier (2023)
From Apache Leap, dir. Christian Rozier (2023)
From Apache Leap, dir. Christian Rozier (2023)

Original Storytellers Night takes place February 22, from 4pm to 9pm, at Cahokia PHX (707 North 3rd Street, Suite 130, Phoenix); tickets are $10.

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Lynn Trimble

Lynn Trimble is an award-winning writer based in Arizona who specializes in arts reporting and arts criticism for regional and national publications.

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