A conversation with Sundance-featured Native director Erica Tremblay

Erica Tremblay is all smiles before her film, Little Chief, premiers at Sundance 2020. (Photo by Adrian Jawort)

Adrian Jawort

‘Little Chief’ starring Lily Gladstone and Julian Ballentyne, world-premiered at this year’s Sundance

Indian Country is reaping the rewards of a Native director Erica Tremblay, Seneca-Cayuga, who recently world-premiered her latest film “Little Chief” as a Shorts Selection at the Sundance film festival.

Directed by Tremblay, “Little Chief,” follows a day in the life of a Native teacher Sharon, portrayed by Lily Gladstone, Blackfeet, who helps a student named Bear, portrayed by Julian Ballentyne. Gladstone was listed as one Rolling Stone magazine’s 12 Breakout Stars From Sundance 2016.”

In the film, Sharon steals toiletries from a maid’s cart to donate to her own school. Along the way, she picks up a student named Bear whose troubles at home have him once again walking to school.

Indian Country Today caught up with Tremblay, a Sundance Institute Native Lab Film Fellow before the “Little Chief’” world premiere.

What compelled you to create this film’s storyline?

I really wanted to create a slice of life unique to the community I come from. My mom has been an educator in our community for 30 years — in fact, she just retired — and I wanted to capture all the work she and our educators do to provide safety for our students and our youth. And in that, they’re ensuring the future of our communities and cultures by investing in our kids.

What was your artistic vision?

I really wanted the film to feel gritty — an Oklahoma winter. To me, an Oklahoma winter really has a different vibe to it than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I wanted it to have that feeling of being there that specific day during winter in Oklahoma, so you get to ride along with these two as they went on their journey. When we were choosing which camera to shoot on and what lenses to use when I worked with my Director of Photography, I said I wanted it to feel cold, cool, and really real. I didn’t want any crazy lighting setups or crazy crane moves; I just wanted it to feel like you were there in the classroom and stuff. I had really minimal lighting and setups and didn’t have any big crazy bells and whistles. So it was really great to work with the DP to set that tone and look.

What was it like working with Lily Gladstone and the local actors and actresses?

Lily is just amazing, and I’ve actually been a fan of hers awhile. I thought about her when I was writing the script but didn’t ever imagine I’d even make the film or get the fellowship. Then Sterling Harjo came on board as a mentor through the Sundance lab, and he said, ‘So what do you think about casting?’ and I said, ‘Oh, I really like Lily Gladstone, but she would probably never do it.’ Then he said, ‘Well, let me text her right now.’ And I was like, ‘Well, of course, you know her! Why would I think you didn’t?’ (Laughs.) So we sent her a script, she read it, and said, ‘Just let me know when and where you want to film and I’ll be there.’ It was just great to have her on board.

All the kids in the classroom scenes are Seneca-Cayuga Nation members. I wanted to bring in the kids from my community and kids that go to that school. The kids got to come and shoot in the school for that day and it was really fun.

What was the general attitude of the community toward the filming?

Oh, they were so supportive. In fact, one of our associate producers is one of our cultural leaders and cultural director there, and he was so helpful in terms of things like getting the tribal cops to help when we were driving and keeping everyone involved all safe. He did a lot of work in that regard. We were able to take the film back and screen it on the Nation, and the community came out and the kids got to see themselves on the big screen. They were just really excited! I’ve gotten a lot of messages from back home today from people just rooting for me and cheering me on.

Too often modern Natives are forgotten as people, so to see themselves and the areas they know represented on film must have been great.

I think that’s what was so cool: to take the film back to the community. Not only did the kids get to come on set and see the camera, but they also got to know what it takes to make a movie and learn that you can tell a story that way. Then they got to watch it, and actually see themselves on the screen.

It’s so important that we have that representation, but even further than that, kids can know they can tell their own stories. Like, you can be an actor, you can be a writer, you can be a filmmaker, you can be all of those things. Sometimes, I think feel those don’t feel like possibilities because you don’t ever see people from your community doing it, or don’t know you can do it, and it’s never been presented to you. So that was something incredibly powerful.

For more information visit https://www.erica-tremblay.com/

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Adrian Jawort, Northern Cheyenne, is a journalist and writer based in Billings, Montana. They are co-founder of the Native American Race Relations Healing and Lecture Series and founder of Off the Pass Press, which aims to promote and produce indigenous literature.

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