Indigenous Oscar consideration: 'This is an important step forward'

Interview with Jason Ryle, executive director of imagineNATIVE, the first Indigenous film festival that can submit to the Academy Awards

Earlier in November 2019, Jason Ryle, the Executive Director of imagineNATIVE, announced that his organizations’ years of hard work to be recognized was paying off after nearly two decades. At a press event, Ryle announced that imagineNATIVE would be the first-ever Indigenous film festival that can submit festival award-winning films to the Academy Awards for consideration to receive an Oscar.

A film is eligible for consideration by the Academy if it has had a theatrical release or if it wins a qualifying award at an Academy designated film festival. 

Thus, any film that wins the imagineNATIVE Cynthia Lickers-Sage Award for Best Short Work could be submitted for consideration and in the best-case scenario, could ultimately win an Academy Award.

The winner of this year’s imagineNATIVE Cynthia Lickers-Sage Award, "Moloka'i Bound" by Hawaiian director Alika Maikau, could possibly receive an Oscar or an Academy nomination.

Lisa Steele, Alika Maikau, and Cynthia Lickers-Sage
The winner of this year’s award, "Moloka'i Bound" by Hawaiian director Alika Maikau, could receive an Oscar.

In the wake of the great news, Indian Country Today sat down with the executive director of imagineNATIVE, Jason Ryle, about the significance imagineNATIVE's recent qualification for Indigenous filmmakers and what to expect from the festival in the years to come.

Vincent Schilling: This is exciting news, a sincere congratulations.

Jason Ryle: This is all very satisfying. It just feels great, all of it, Wes' Oscar, the news of us as a qualifying festival. It's nice to see the Academy putting some weight behind their words. Over the past few years we've seen a lot of diverse filmmakers, people in the industry from a lot of different communities, including the Indigenous Native American community, become members of the Oscars, like Audi Obomsawim, Zack Kunuk, Bird Runningwater, Heather Rae and that's what we need.

Hollywood, as much as it's been responsible for creating this misrepresentation of us, and creating the "Hollywood Indian," which obviously as you know has impacted the world's view of who we are; this is an important step forward. 

This really gives an incredible opportunity to an Indigenous filmmaker to accelerate their career, one hopes, and certainly to get some attention. I think Hollywood is going to come around very soon to recognize the need to have Indigenous Native American representation on screens, and we're slowly seeing that. We're talking about undoing over a century of misrepresentation on screen, so it's going to take some time.

For us, this was imagineNATIVE's 20th anniversary and I've been with the organization for 17 years.

Vincent: Not bad to have the 20th anniversary on top of the Oscar announcement.

Jason Ryle: It was a great candle on top of the 20th birthday cake to end with that news. It's really been the heart work for many people who love Indigenous-made films. When we put the application in, it was voted on by a committee within the Academy and it had all the support across the board from my understanding. So I'm very pleased with that.

Vincent Schilling: You have worked hard for 17 years. There's a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes that people don't realize when they're sitting in the seats watching the films at a festival. So with all this work you've done, Jason, do you feel like, "Holy moly, wow, someone heard our voice?"

Jason Ryle: Yes, yes. The short answer is yes. And I think what's remarkable is that every year for the festival, regardless of how small we were, we've grown so much over the course of our history. In those early festival years when there were six people coming to a movie screening, it was all still so gratifying because every single year, you would see someone's life being changed.

Be that a filmmaker who finds a community of filmmakers or an audience member who's never heard an Indigenous view of history before. Or an Indigenous perspective on screen. Every single year you see someone's life being changed or impacted in a positive way.

One of the things that I think has been so instrumental to imagineNATIVE's success has been our focus on Indigenous filmmakers, on Indigenous media artists. That's been the mandate Of the organization since year one, and it's never wavered from that. So in the sense that we're in service to support Indigenous filmmakers and the works that they make. So for us, to really have the larger industry, and regardless of sort of what some may think of prizes or whatnot, the Oscars are really meaningful, and I think sort of we need to get the opportunity for Indigenous filmmakers to get nominated, to win these Oscars, and those days are coming. And they're going to be coming very soon, I think. so it's really exciting to be part of it.

imagineNATIVEOscarAnnounce_JasonRyle

Vincent: Schilling Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this is young people, young artists, and directors — wherever they might be on the Rez or in an urban environment — who see Wes Studi standing at the Oscars which seemed like an impossible feat. They might say, "How could I get to the majestic level that West Studi is?" Or as far as winning an Oscar as a director. "How can I make that transition?" What you have just done with all of your almost two decades worth of work, is you have bridged what would have seemed to be an impossible gap. You have now brought dreams of Native Americans and Indigenous people even that much closer. Perhaps they will say "Oh my God. If I can now learn to apply and get into imagineNATIVE, I could possibly stand a chance at the Oscars". You have bridged that gap that was before a near impossible thought process. How does that feel?

Jason Ryle: It feels incredible. That's lovely of you to say and lovely for me to hear. Again, I feel like I can't take all the credit for this. It's a team of people both within imagineNATIVE and outside of it. But you know, the thing that came to mind is our industry, if you take the larger Indigenous film industry, we're still in a place of so many firsts, right? All these other different things still have yet to happen. So that's really incredible for the industry. And I think the fact that we haven't been given those opportunities in the industry is what makes our story so appealing. And so interesting, not just to a broad audience, but chief executives, I think increasingly in Hollywood. Ava Du Vernay who's a phenomenal filmmaker, great distribution company now, is taking on some Indigenous films. Which again is a first.

So now because of our mandate at imagineNATIVE — in which the film must be made by an Indigenous filmmaker — that's really significant because now every single year an Indigenous filmmaker will be eligible for consideration for a short film Oscar. And that's an important stepping stone and I think an important thing moving forward.

Vincent: For young actors or young filmmakers, why would you say imagineNATIVE is so significant?

Jason Ryle: There's a lot that's available to international filmmakers, and the festival each year is the international hub and meeting point for our industry and for our community that supports it. So if somebody is looking to get into the industry and wants to meet with Indigenous directors, they're all there at imagineNATIVE. It's an important meeting points, not just to celebrate our work, but also to build our industry.

We're not just celebrating our work, we're actually building our industry as well. Which is something that's so necessary because it does mean employment, it does mean jobs across the board. And there's increasingly more interest in having Indigenous people work in positions below the line as it's called.

What's really incredible and we're talking 20 years ago. Did we dream about this? Yes, we dreamt it, but who knew how long it would take? So looking 20 years forward, we're all moving forward together. That's the great thing regarding the success that we've had at imagineNATIVE, I hope will only have the trickle-down effect and extend to all the other Indigenous film festivals that exist around the world.

I'm just really excited about what's coming.

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Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling and Instagram - @VinceSchilling

Email - vschilling@indiancountrytoday.com

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