A conversation with N. Bird Runningwater

A conversation with N. Bird Runningwater

Editors’ note: This is the second in a series of interviews with entertainment industry figures who have a direct influence on diversity in film and television. As programmer of Native Initiatives for the prestigious Sundance Institute, founded by Robert Redford, N. Bird Runningwater helps indigenous filmmakers get worldwide attention for their projects.

Born of the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache peoples, N. Bird Runningwater was reared on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico. As programmer for Native American Initiatives at the Sundance Institute, he works with Native screenwriters on the development of their scripts, placing them on a trajectory towards production, including connecting them with potential financing and distribution. He also oversees the programming of the Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum, a showcase highlighting the innovations of indigenous filmmaking.

A recipient of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation’s National Fellowship in Public Policy and International Affairs, Runningwater is also an alumnus of Americans for Indian Opportunity’s Ambassadors Program and the Kellogg Fellows Program. He is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with degrees in Journalism and Native American Studies, and he received his Master of Public Affairs degree from the University of Texas at Austin’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

Runningwater has served as producer, director and writer for a number of film and television projects including: Arts and Civic Dialogue with Anna Deveare Smith, a documentary on the Ford Foundation’s Artist-in-Residence Anna Deavere Smith; Nativezine, a weekly magazine format television show highlighting indigenous artists; Gen Y 2002, a digital documentary on DVD featuring the indigenous Gen Y participants of the 2002 Sundance Film Festival, and Nation Building, a promotional video on the Mescalero Apache Telecomm. Inc. (MATI).

Before joining the Sundance Institute, Runningwater was based in New York and served as executive director of the Fund of the Four Directions, the private philanthropy of a Rockefeller family member. The Fund focused on supporting the revitalization of the languages and lifeways of North America’s indigenous peoples. Prior to joining the Fund, Runningwater served as program associate in the Ford Foundation’s Media, Arts and Culture Program, where he built and managed domestic and global funding initiatives focusing on specific issues within the media, arts and culture fields. The emphases of those initiatives included: expanding arts and cultural programs that play a role in public discourse on important civic issues; reducing systemic media bias against racial and ethnic minority communities; expanding efforts to strengthen the infrastructure that supports non-commercial television, radio and other public service media; and strengthening Native media programs and institutions that combine new media technologies with their media practices.

Offering Native perspectives and guidance to a number of institutions, Runningwater serves as a member of the national nominating committee for the Rockefeller Foundation’s Film and Video Fellowships; as an advisor to the First Peoples Fund’s Community Spirit Arts Awards; and, on the National Editorial Board for YES!: A Journal of Positive Futures. He also serves on the board of directors for Native American Public Telecommunications and as an advisor to IFP/LA’s Project: Involve Program.

Runningwater serves as a contributing writer to several publications, including Native Americas Magazine and YES! Magazine. He has been a featured lecturer at Marquette University, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, the University of Southern California, and a frequent guest on “Close Up” on CSPAN. He has been featured in interviews on National Public Radio, the Sundance Channel, as well as feature articles in Spirit Magazine, Savoy Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Daily News and USA Today. Most recently he was featured and profiled in “The Color of Our Future,” a book written by political commentator Farai Chideya.

ICT: How did you become involved in the Native Forum at the Sundance Film Festival?

Runningwater: I started out helping the director of the Native program, Heather Rae, to find new ways for the Native Forum to be more inclusive and expansive. When Heather took another position, I was offered the directorship of the Native Program.

ICT: What is the process by which a film is accepted for the Native Forum at the Sundance Film Festival?

Runningwater: A team of six people “programs” the film festival, including me. We scout for, view, and then debate the merits of, each film under consideration. A film is shown at Sundance because someone fought for it and won with the heads of the festival and the other programmers. It’s a deeply complex process that can’t be explained fully, it has to be lived. But, to argue for a film simply because it “deserves” to be shown isn’t enough, all films made deserve to be shown, if you think about it. To make a case for a film one must emphasize the strengths, the excellence, the original voice, the risk-taking, and the one-of-a-kind uniqueness that will complement a larger selection of films that an audience would clamor to see at our festival.

ICT: What are the chief creative criterions for Native Forum entries?

Runningwater: That films be written and directed by a Native/indigenous filmmaker.

ICT: How did the Native Forum come about?

Runningwater: Native cinema and the nurturing of Native filmmakers has been a passion project of Bob Redford’s for quite a long time in his career. His vision and commitment to supporting Native cinema existed long before there was even a Native film community. His commitment is carried out by the Sundance Institute (which he founded), through the Native Program, which scouts for filmmakers and films to be supported through the feature film program and the Sundance Film Festival.

ICT: Talk about some of the highlights of the Native Forum at Sundance.

Runningwater: The Sundance Film Festival’s Native Forum is nine years old, and has shown amazing growth and potential. Initially, because so few Native films were being made, there were many films shown that were Native “content” but not Native “made.” So the biggest highlight is being able to offer a slate of films today that exhibits “indigenous creative control” in writing and directing. The Forum has also broadened to screen films from indigenous filmmakers from North America (U.S. and Canada) and the South Pacific (Australia/New Zealand). The international inclusion is a part of a larger strategy of building an international indigenous film community.

The debut of “Smoke Signals” has to be the highlight of Native Cinema, which won two awards at the 1998 festival: Audience Award and Directors Trophy.

ICT: Is the Native Forum a competition category at Sundance?

Runningwater: No, it is not a competitive category. The Native Forum is a showcase for the innovations of indigenous filmmaking. The only awards offered at Sundance are for American dramatic and documentary competition, which “Smoke Signals” was considered for.

ICT: Why is it important to have the Native Forum as part of the Sundance Film Festival?

Runningwater: Sundance is the premier showcase in the United States for American and international independent film. American cinema would be incomplete without a contribution from the original peoples of the land that make up the U.S.A. ? same for World Cinema. A Native Forum exists to not only show the innovative approaches to filmmaking being undertaken by Native artists that everyone can learn from, but to provide a glimpse of the world through Native filmmakers that one can’t get anywhere else.

ICT: Is there any other film festival that offers a forum for Native and indigenous filmmakers?

Runningwater: There is no other festival showcase or program like the Sundance Film Festival Native Forum and the Native Program. As “Smoke Signals” screenwriter Sherman Alexie said at the 2002 festival, “Sundance does more for indigenous film than any other festival in the world.”

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