The 33rd Annual American Indian Film Festival honors top films and talent

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Story & Photos By Sandra Hale Schulman
San Francisco, California (NFIC) 12-08

Mike Smith and AIFI PR honcho Cindy Benitez share a laugh with Janice, Beverly and William Osceola as they receive gifts.

The American Indian Film Institute (AIFI) put on another first class American Indian Film Festival,  during November. As the nation’s most prominent outlet for Native American films, the American Indian Film Festival premiered over 80 new feature films, shorts, public service, music videos and documentaries from USA American Indian and Canada First Nation communities.

The festival ran Nov. 7-12 at the Landmark Embarcadero Center Cinema, and concluded Nov. 13-15 at the Palace of Fine Arts, a grand old theater once used for a Worlds Fair. 

Among the feature films this year, the U.S. Premiere of Drew Hayden Taylor’s In a World Created by a Drunken God; the World Premiere of Coloring the Media; and the U.S. Premiere of Zacharias Kunuk’s (Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), Before Tomorrow, directed by Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu.

A special event was produced this year – “Remembering Floyd Red Crow Westerman (1936-2007),” a film and music tribute, was presented November 13 at the Palace of Fine Arts. Westerman was an accomplished singer/songwriter whose 1969 debut album “Custer Died for Your Sins” earned critical acclaim. He also was a human rights activist who performed with Sting in the rainforest benefits; and an actor who received world-wide attention and acclaim as “Ten Bears” in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves. The musical tribute was a tearful, joyful event directed by songwriter/ performer Keith Secola and hosted by Floyd’s good friends comic Charlie Hill and actor Max Gail.

The evening started with a clip of Floyd’s last appearance at the Festival two years ago. It was followed by the world premiere of my music video “Drums” featuring Floyd singing with John Densmore of The Doors, Keith Secola, soul singing skin Martha Redbone, and Dave Roe of The Johnny Cash Band on bass.

This all-star band never actually got to perform the song together as it was recorded in three different sessions over the course of a year. Floyd fell ill shortly after it was finished. When I heard about the tribute Keith was planning I began work on the video, which is part of an album that is a tribute to Peter La Farge. I scrambled to pull together clips of Floyd singing and speaking. Special thanks to his widow Rosie Westerman for the photos and clips and also Brad Stoddard of New Mexico who provided some great powwow drumming clips. John Densmore also sent some clips of him drumming and some great stills.

The video was finished Tuesday night, I flew to San Francisco Thursday morning and the film was screened that night.

Backstage with Max Gail, Bonnie Raitt, John Densmore and friend.
After the films, Mike Smith brought out Keith and the special guests he assembled including the legendary folk cowboy Rambling Jack Elliott, actor Max Gail and Grammy winner/activist Bonnie Raitt. Members of Floyd’s family were there including his daughter and widow. Special audience guests included actor Michael Horse, Michael Spears, and Sacheen Littlefeather, the woman who refused Marlon Brando’s Oscar in the 70s.

Keith started the night off singing “Missionaries,” and provided first rate backup for the rest of the singers. Bonnie Raitt sang a heartbreaking version of “Angel From Montgomery,” the feisty Rambling Jack thumped out “San Francisco Bay Blues,” Densmore ended the night drumming on “Riders on the Storm.” Charlie Hill gave a touching funny monologue about his many years of friendship with Floyd. Widow Rosie Westerman spoke through her tears, saying that Floyd always told her not to worry as the spirit world is the real world. She relayed a story about a trip they took to Italy for a film festival. Swarms of media and the Mayor greeted them at the airport. When Floyd stepped off the plane he said, “I am here to discover Italy in the name of Sitting Bull!”

On Friday, Nov. 14, AIFI’s Tribal Touring Program, a Native youth film workshop program supported by tribal host partners, showcased 16 films from the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians, Brooks, CA; Stop the Violence Coalition, Hoopa, CA; and the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, Rohnert Park, CA. A swank luncheon for the filmmakers took place Saturday at McCormicks restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Seminoles were honored for their sponsorship, and Smith introduced many of the luminaries in attendance.

Charlie Hill and Jennifer Kreisberg of Ulali at the luncheon.
The big night was AIFI’s American Indian Motion Picture Awards Show, honoring filmmakers and showcasing contemporary Native American talent. Special guest hosts included Michael Horse, Tonantzin Carmelo, and Michael Spears. Fourteen awards were presented including Best Film, Best Actor and Best Documentary. The show featured an eclectic mix of live entertainment by established and emerging Native artists and performers. New country artist Crystal Shawanda (Dawn of a New Day), headlined the evening and won for Best Music Video. Misty Upham of “Frozen River” (reviewed in NFIC recently) won for Best Supporting Actress, while Wes Studi won Best Actor and “In a World Created by A Drunken God” took Best Picture Honors.

The Yaaw Tei Yi dance group from Juneau, Alaska, put on a real showstopper dance number singing tribal songs while stomping the stage in gorgeous felt capes embroidered with Orca whales and eagles. The troupe has been invited to perform at the Inauguration Festivities for Obama in January.

Drew LaCapa was supposed to perform but was felled by a stroke a few days earlier and is recovering. Charlie Hill stepped in and had the audience roaring with laughter at his biting Native humor.

Micki Free and Shea Keck sang “Seminole Wind,” Swil Kanim played solo violin in a storytelling piece.

The evening ended with a hopeful speech by director Mike Smith who praised the recent win by Barack Obama, who promises to be a staunch supporter of Native Americans. He then decried the lack of media coverage by San Francisco’s major daily newspaper The Chronicle, who have yet to acknowledge the festival’s 33 year existence in a town that has one of the largest Native populations in the country and the silent former prison Alcatraz that sits in the bay as a daily reminder of the power Natives have to be heard.