Director, Center for Media, Culture, and History,
New York University
First of all, I want to thank all the organizers of this event, especially Hu Tai-li, the President of the Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival; and Lin Wen-Ling, the Festival Director, and Kirk Fong, International Coordinator, for organizing this fantastic festival, and for inviting me to be part of it, coming from my island of Manhattan, to yours, Taiwan. I have heard so much about this festival for many years and feel very honored to be part of it. Thanks to all of you.
I am so delighted to be here at this showcase and celebration of indigenous media, from many corners of the globe, and especially from Taiwan, where I understand an Indigenous Television Service has recently started broadcasting. Taiwan Indigenous TV joins the inauguration of what I like to call “First Nations Stations” that began with the launch in 1999 of the Aboriginal People’s Television Network in Canada; followed by Maori TV in Aoteoroa/New Zealand in 2004; and most recently the debut of National Indigenous Television in Australia only a few months ago. This is an astonishing success story that hearkens back to the very beginnings of efforts to indigenize television in central Australia the 1980s when an American researcher and activist, Eric Michaels, advocating for low power television in the remote Warlpiri community of Yuendumu in Central Australia entitled his report to the government, The Invention of Aboriginal Television.
Since I was asked to make comments at this opening session, I decided to do a bit of backtracking to place this event in a longer history, tracing it in part through my own involvement with the field of indigenous media and a bit of a genealogy of the presence of this work in my part of the world. Unexpectedly, New York City has turned out to be a great place to see and host indigenous films and their directors from all over the world. As a filmmaker, scholar, writer and activist, I have spent almost 20 years supporting and writing about the work of indigenous media makers, and showcasing their work at New York University, at the Center for Media, Culture, and History which I founded in 1988. I had begun teaching at NYU where I was asked to start a program in ethnographic film. It was apparent to me the time that if we were to imagine what this field might be like in the 21st Century, we needed to shift to a broader model that incorporated not only new work in ethnographic film but the emerging work in indigenous media and the exciting new ways that these projects addressed questions of culture and its representation. To bring these fields into dialogue and to develop knowledge of indigenous media, at my Center we have sponsored screenings, seminars, and fellowships for indigenous filmmakers from across the globe – the US, Canada, Nunavut, Mexico, Australia, Aoteoroa-New Zealand, the Amazon, Bolivia, Sami from Scandinavia. This has been an incredible opportunity for all of us, and students are especially excited to be able to see and learn about this work.
Institutional collaborations have been fundamental to the further development of this field, providing opportunities for broader audiences to learn about this work and for indigenous producers to engage with each other. We are fortunate to collaborate regularly with several institutions in the city: the Film and Video Center of the National Museum of the American Indian has been a central location in the US providing support and visibility for indigenous media makers and their organizations across the Americas; indeed, I think that was where I first saw Victor Masayesva’s extraordinary video, Itam Hakim Hopiit, in 1985, and had my eyes opened to not only his work, but the development of film, video and photography that was just getting off the ground in the mid 1980s. We also work closely with the Museum of Modern Art, where Victor Masayesva, Tewa filmmaker and scholar Beverly Singer, and curator Sally Berger organized the first exhibit of indigenous media at that Museum, a show called Traveling with the Ancients, in the mid 1990s. We also work closely with the Margaret Mead Film Festival, a major annual documentary event devoted to cross-cultural work which has also regularly screened indigenous work, including Victor Masayesva’s experimental videos. In 1998, the festival hosted work from indigenous Australia, including CAAMA, (represented here by Curtis Marriot) and other central Australian Aboriginal organizations such as Warlpiri Media; and also featured a number of documentaries from Taiwan for a section of the festival entitled “Relocating Home” which included: As Life, As Pang-Cah by Mayaw Biho and Mother of the Tribe by Chen Jung-Hsien. 1998 along with Hu-Tai-Li’s Passing Through My Mother-in-Law’s Village.
Most recently, in May 2005, I co-curated a showcase entitled First Nations/First Features, bringing together of 20 indigenous feature films and their directors, an event which opened at first at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and then at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. We were inspired by a range of works, from Victor’s inaugural film in 1985 to Chris Eyre’s commercially successful 1998 film Smoke Signals, and in 2001 by the great success of Igloolik Isuma’s Atanajurat (Fast Runner), the first Inuit feature film (and first film in Inuktitut), the extraordinary drama about a legendary Inuit hero, directed by Zacharias Kunuk, including the winning of the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in France in 2001. In June of that year, Message Sticks: Blak Screens/Blak Sounds, Australia’s first festival of indigenous film and music opened to a packed audiences at the prestigious Sydney Opera House with the premiere of the dramatic period film, One Night the Moon, a second feature by Aboriginal director Rachel Perkins. Her first feature, Radiance (1997), circulated internationally to critical acclaim. Two months earlier, at the 13th Nordic Film Festival in Guovdageaidnu Norway, festival organizer Anne Lajla Utsi, announced to attendees that “Filmmaking is a Sami tradition”, one that began in 1987 with Nils Gaup’s award-winning dramatic feature The Pathfinder, with a strong track record of new work since then, This cascade of events in 2001 provoked those of us who have been tracking the development of this remarkable work — from local videos made in remote communities to the creation of feature films — to organize a program of these outstanding first features emerging from First Nations communities around the world highlighting not only gripping stories – from warrior legends to land rights to contemporary dilemmas of family and identity — but also distinctive narrative and aesthetic strategies. Along with the screenings, we convened a symposium entitled Cultural Creativity and Cultural Rights, an opportunity for indigenous directors from every part of the world to talk together about how the stories, visions and sounds of traditional culture influence their work on screen; as well as the issues they face in gaining support for the production and circulation of their films off screen.
In addition to the opportunity to showcase this work, we have been supporting and developing research, scholarship and critical writing about indigenous media. In addition to my own longstanding work on the development of indigenous media in Australia and elsewhere, I have a book series, Visible Evidence, where we have published several important volumes on indigenous media including Beverly Singer’s Wiping the Warpaint off the Lens: Native American Film and Video, Jennifer Deger’s Shimmering Screens: Making Media in an Aboriginal Community and Jeff Himpele’s Circuits of Cinema: Mediating Indigineity in Bolivian Media Worlds and look forward to more work that will bring knowledge of the creativity and possibility of indigenous media to broader audiences.
Over the last two decades, through many different forms from video to tv to feature film, indigenous media have played a role in projects of cultural revival, whether through recording traditional rituals or through the use of video, film, and media events as a persuasive tool for claims to political sovereignty.
A large portion of indigenous media is produced and consumed by people living in remote settlements, although the work circulates to other native communities as well as to non-aboriginal audiences via film festivals, human rights fora, court hearings, video and dvd circulation, and broadcasts. The range of the work is wide, moving from small-scale community-based videos, to low power television, to major independent art films, as well as to the internet.. Indigenous people who live in or closer to metropoles, such as urban Australian Aboriginal filmmakers, participate in a wider world of media imagery production and circulation such as national film and television industries), and feel their claim to an indigenous identity within a more cosmopolitan framework is sometimes regarded as inauthentic. Debates about such work reflect the changing status of “culture”, which is increasingly a source of claims for political and human rights both nationally and on the world stage. Narrating stories and retelling traumatic histories from an indigenous point of view through a variety of media forms that can circulate beyond the local, has been an important force for constituting claims for land and cultural rights, for restitution of historical injury and for developing alliances with other communities. Media makers are documenting traditional activities with elders; creating works to teach young people literacy in their own languages; engaging with dominant circuits of mass media and project political struggles through mainstream as well as alternative arenas; communicating among dispersed kin and communities on a range of issues; using video as legal documents in negotiations with states; presenting videos on state television to assert their presence within national imaginaries; or creating award-winning feature films.
What we see in indigenous media everywhere is how these technologies have been embraced as powerful forms of collective self-production. These have enabled cultural activists to assert their presence in the polities that encompass them, and to more easily enter into much larger movements for social transformation for the recognition and redress of human and cultural rights. These are processes in which media play an increasingly important and singular role, as I am sure will be apparent to all of us over the next several days.