New Native Cinema, Part II: Before Tomorrow

Catriona McKenzie’s Satellite Boy (2012).
Catriona McKenzie’s Satellite Boy (2012).

Leo Koziol (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rakaipaaka) honors the 21st-century Natives taking on the film world in part two of our celebration of the rise of New Native Cinema.

Note: this article may contain images and stories of people who have passed away.

We left off, in part one, at the end of the twentieth century, when pioneers like Merata Mita, Barry Barclay and Alanis Obomsawin had laid the ground and planted the seed for the Native film community to grow. Barclay was expanding film theory by propounding Native cinema as a Fourth Cinema, international connections were being made, and new filmmakers were gaining prominence and success.

The 1990s saw Australian directors Rachel Perkins and Tracey Moffatt present debut features that promised brilliant careers ahead. Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals showed that films made by Natives could achieve box-office success on top of film-festival kudos.

By the end of the century, Zacharias Kunuk had completed several short films. Taika Waititi had made his feature acting debut in a New Zealand indie stoner comedy and was writing theater projects with future-famous friends including Jemaine Clement (Ngāti Kahungunu). The scene was set for great things to happen.

Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).
Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).

The award winners

The new century opened with Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (​​ᐊᑕᓈᕐᔪᐊᑦ), an outside-the-box drama based on an Inuit legend, winning the Caméra d’Or for best first feature at Cannes in 2001. The win was astonishing and groundbreaking—an all-Native cast, all in Native tongue, set in pre-European times, and not one white savior in sight. It was lauded as a landmark in both Indigenous and Canadian film.

Not much later, and future Oscar-winner Waititi is sitting (ahem, snoozing?) at the 2005 Academy Awards as a nominee for his first short film, Two Cars, One Night, a slice-of-life black-and-white drama set in the carpark of a rural bar, as three neglected Māori children wait for their parents to take them home. (This short was a calling card for his sophomore feature, Boy, which broke box-office records in his home country in 2010).

With this short, Waititi became the darling of Sundance, and his rise was mirrored by the successes of Cliff Curtis (a favorite Hollywood character actor and notable film producer) and the arrival of Bird Runningwater into the Sundance team (helming their new Native programme). Native filmmakers such as Mita, Perkins, and Heather Rae (Cherokee), worked with Runningwater to mentor young creatives—including Sterlin Harjo, Warwick Thornton, and Andrew Okpeaha McLean— many of whom would return with feature films in the years that followed.

Auraeus Solito’s The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros (2005).
Auraeus Solito’s The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros (2005).

All of these filmmakers began to hit their mark as new Native movies debuted around the world. By the end of this century’s first decade, Native filmmakers were making regular appearances at Berlinale, SXSW, Tribeca, Sundance and TIFF. Samson and Delilah, made by Aboriginal director Warwick Thornton (a Kaytetye man) won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes 2009. Palawán-Filipino filmmaker Auraeus Solito’s Blossoming of Maximo Oliveiros won the queer Teddy award at Berlinale and set momentum for his 2011 meditation, Busong, which premiered in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight.

Moffatt transitioned away from feature films to focus on her art, to stunning success—she represented Australia as the first solo Aboriginal artist at the 2017 Venice Biennale. Similar success was achieved at that same event by Ngāpuhi, Ngati Hine and Ngaituteauru Māori artist and filmmaker Lisa Reihana with In Pursuit of Venus {infected}, a stunning audio-visual tableau projected across five screens.

Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest (2014). 
Sydney Freeland’s Drunktown’s Finest (2014). 

Young, Native and queer

The 2010s saw the arrival of a fresh batch of LGBTQ features directed by filmmakers who were young, Native and queer. Two of the best are Drunktown’s Finest and Fire Song.

Drunktown’s Finest is an ensemble piece about three young Navajo natives, one a young trans woman torn between fleeing to city life or staying home to embrace the Native community and culture she so loves. This film is notable in that writer-director Sydney Freeland had herself not yet come out as trans on the film’s release, but did so soon after the film found success on the festival circuit. Freeland went on to direct a second feature Diedra and Laney Rob a Train (picked up by Netflix) as well as episodes of the Tales of the City reboot (also on Netflix).

Like Drunktown’s Finest, Adam Garnet Jones’ Fire Song is a love story about being young and queer on the “Rez” (Native reservation)—this time in Anishnaabe Canada—with the tug of big-city life pulling against Native tradition. The film is notable in that one of its leads, Ma-Nee Chacaby, was one of the first out queer lesbian Native leaders in Canada (she plays a bigoted Aunt in the film).

Meanwhile, New Zealand-born Samoan director Nikki Si’ulepa and her partner Rachel Aneta Wills adapted the true story of their meeting—at a Māori film festival, no less!—into the 2019 indie romantic comedy Same But Different: A True New Zealand Love Story. (Si’ulepa, also an actress, can be seen in a scorching queer role in the comedy series Creamerie, coming to Hulu in December.)

Miria George’s Kuki Airani (Cook Islands) segment of Vai (2019).
Miria George’s Kuki Airani (Cook Islands) segment of Vai (2019).

Native women rising

The number of native women making features grows year by year. In Australia, Perkins continued her feature drama success with Bran Nue Day and Jasper Jones, and a string of tele-dramas and documentaries. In the 2010s, two more Australian aboriginal women achieved the feature-film pinnacle: Catriona McKenzie (Gunai/Kurnai), with the poignant Satellite Boy—featuring a crumbling outdoor cinema—and Beck Cole (Warramungu and Luritja), with the powerful Here I Am.

A wave of Pacific Indigenous female filmmakers has come rushing in via anthology features Waru (TIFF) and Vai (Berlinale, SXSW, Māoriland), innovative projects spearheaded by Papua New Guinean/Scottish producer Kerry Warkia and her director husband Kiel McNaughton (Ngāti Mahanga, Tainui, The Legend of Baron To’a). Their third anthology, Kāinga, will showcase Pan-Asian women filmmakers.

Many of the women supported by this project are now in the early stages of making their own full-length features. The first of these landed on Netflix this year: Cousins, an adaptation of a novel by noted Māori writer Patricia Grace, written and directed by Briar Grace-Smith (Ngā Puhi, Ngāti Wai) and formative Waititi producer Ainsley Gardiner (Te-Whānau a Apanui, Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāti Awa).

Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood (2016). 
Amanda Kernell’s Sami Blood (2016). 

Far further north, Arnait Ikajurtigiit, a filmmaking collective, made waves at TIFF 2008, winning Best Canadian First Feature for their debut film, Before Tomorrow, directed by Madeline Piujuq Ivalu (Inuk) and Marie-Hélène Cousineau. The Nunavut-based collective, founded in 1991 to honor the oral history of Inuk women, has since delivered two more features: Uvanga and Restless River.

More recently, Sámi filmmaker Amanda Kernell made an impact on the festival circuit in 2016 with her feature debut Sami Blood, tracing the story of oppression of Sámi culture in 1930s Sweden. Her follow-up, Charter, premiered at Sundance in 2020.

Native women filmmakers are now celebrated every year at Sundance with the Merata Mita Fellowship, named for the groundbreaking storyteller, who served as an advisor and artistic director to the Sundance Institute Native Lab for the first decade of this century. Grace-Smith and Gardiner were the 2019 recipients, a year after Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blackfoot/Sámi), whose first feature The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open premiered at the 2019 Berlinale.

Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders (2021).
Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders (2021).

Fantastic Natives

Tailfeathers also stars as lead in this year’s Night Raiders, the debut feature of Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet. Night Raiders is dystopian science fiction set in the near future that also meditates on the past history of ‘stolen children’ and residential schools in Canada. It’s one of many new Native-made horror, fantasy and sci-fi flicks that have Native genre fans rejoicing.

The decidedly singular voice of Jeff Barnaby (Miꞌkmaq) has brought us buckets of blood (and bodily fluids) in Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Blood Quantum, a quirky zom-com where those with Native blood are strangely immune from a fast-spreading zombie disease.

Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019).
Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum (2019).

From New Zealand, Māori-language feature The Dead Lands, directed by Toa Fraser (who is of Fijian descent), is also not shy of blood and gore (and cannibalism!), and has been followed up by a somewhat less epic English-language TV series (currently streaming on Shudder). Canadian horror-thriller Edge of the Knife (SGaawaay K’uuna), from Helen Haig-Brown and Gwaai Edenshaw, is also in a Native tongue, the endangered Haida Gwaii language.

No Native genre section is complete without mention of Waititi and Clement’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, an obsessively rewatched Letterboxd favorite that has spawned two television spinoffs (the FX series of the same title, and Wellington Paranormal, which follows the original film’s straight-faced police officers and their Māori boss, Sargeant Maaka). It’s worth noting the broad power of television in providing a longer-form canvas for Indigenous storytellers. As I have recently written, behind shows like Reservation Dogs and Rutherford Falls lie young creatives who cut their teeth in independent film.

Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires (2012).
Wayne Blair’s The Sapphires (2012).

Songs of freedom

Native people’s love of music has resulted in a string of small-scale Indigenous-made hits: from New Zealand, Tammy Davis’ Born to Dance, Tearepa Kahi’s Mt Zion and Himiona Grace’s The Pā Boys all featured songs that were hits on local charts. Choreographer Parris Goebel’s Royal Family dance crew, who feature prominently in Born to Dance, found greater fame in one of Justin Bieber’s music videos and continue to work with megastars of the music industry.

Australia’s Wayne Blair, a Batjala, Mununjali and Wakkawakka man, found success with musical The Sapphires, a 1960s-set interracial rom-com about a touring group of Aboriginal women singers in Vietnam. Making an Indigenous feature film is no guarantee of Hollywood learning all its lessons at once, however. The DVD release for The Sapphires was heavily criticized for placing Irish actor Chris O’Dowd front and center; the US distributor later apologized. Blair went to the US to direct the 2017 reimagining of Dirty Dancing, returning to Australia to make the hit film Top End Wedding (another interracial rom-com).

Tearepa Kahi’s Poi E: The Story of Our Song (2016).
Tearepa Kahi’s Poi E: The Story of Our Song (2016).

But documentary features are still the richest ground for Native music stories by far, though at this point in history few have been made by Indigenous filmmakers. Many non-Native-made feature docs tend to be anthropological in nature, but some, like Paul Damien Williams’ 2017 profile of Elcho Island musician Dr G Yunupingu, and Natasha Gadd and Rhys Graham’s Murundak: Songs of Freedom, benefit from the filmmakers’ close partnerships with the Aboriginal communities whose stories they tell.

From the team who made Reel Injun, and executive produced by Apache musician and composer Stevie Salas, the 2017 feature doc Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World tells the story of some better-known Native Americans in popular music history, including Academy Award winner Buffy Sainte-Marie.

It would be remiss of me not to mention 2019 TIFF opener Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, which touches deeply and sensitively on Robertson’s Cayuga and Mohawk ancestry. Robertson himself has been a prolific soundtrack producer and composer, including for Raging Bull, Casino, The Departed and The Irishman. (Robertson and Sainte-Marie were both celebrated this month by the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, alongside actress Tantoo Cardinal and actor Wes Studi.)

Three other excellent Native-directed music features of late are Poi E: The Story of Our Song, Herbs: Songs of Freedom and Dawn Raid, about Polynesian hip-hop pioneers including Savage (whose hit single ‘Swing!’ plays a pivotal role in getting Alison Knocked Up).

We can’t move on from this section without a shout out to Samoan-born, New Zealand-raised Tuvaluan/Tokelauan musician Opetaia Foa’i, for his pivotal role in Disney’s pan-Polynesian adventure, Moana. He folded his first languages into the film’s Motunui anthem, ‘We Know the Way’.

Tusi Tamasese The Orator (O Le Tulafale, 2011).
Tusi Tamasese The Orator (O Le Tulafale, 2011).

Pacific peoples cinema

Which brings us to the vast Pacific. Two directors to have risen to prominence are the aforementioned Fraser, and Samoan filmmaker Tusi Tamasese. Fraser’s No. 2, a gentle, suburban, comedy-drama about a matriarch naming her family’s successor, took out the audience award at Sundance. He followed this up with directing success across genres (including a directing credit on Netflix’s Sweet Tooth).

Tamasese’s meditative, magical-realist drama The Orator (O Le Tulafale) broke ground as the first-ever Samoan-language narrative film, made in Samoa with a Samoan cast. He followed this up with the similarly ruminative spooker One Thousand Ropes.

Other Pacific Island directors who have risen to prominence include the wife-and-husband team of Kiwi-Tongan Vea Mafileo and Samoan New Zealander Jeremiah Tauamiti (For My Father’s Kingdom). And there’s Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa, whose first self-funded feature, Three Wise Cousins, was successful enough to fund a string of sequels—Hibiscus and Ruthless, Take Home Pay—an incredible achievement in a local film industry that has long depended on public funding. His films have tapped into hungry audiences both at home in New Zealand and Western Samoa and abroad, thanks to diaspora audiences in Australia and North America.

Alathea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk (2016).
Alathea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk (2016).

Native non-fiction

Stunning works have been completed by Native filmmakers in the documentary space. Alathea Arnaquq-Baril’s Angry Inuk switches out the animal-rights narrative to present a case for Natives continuing to undertake a practice (seal hunting) that has been part of their culture for millennia. Tasha Hubbard’s nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up carries on the legacy of Merata Mita and Alanis Obomsawin in a stunning rebuke to the ongoing racism embedded within the Canadian justice system, telling the story of the tragic death of Colten Boushie.

A recent documentary has itself become the subject of much controversy. In 2020, Inconvenient Indian, based on the popular book by Cherokee writer Thomas King, premiered to much fanfare at TIFF and went on to screen at imagineNATIVE. At the end of that year, it was suddenly pulled from Sundance after an article was published questioning director Michelle Latimer’s Indigenous identity. A release of Inconvenient Indian to audiences—festival and public alike—is now on indefinite hiatus, and Latimer’s multi-million-dollar hit CBC television show The Trickster (similarly based on a book by a Native writer) has had its second season cancelled (with its largely Indigenous cast and crew no longer in employment). Latimer at the time sued CBC for defamation, and only recently has rescinded his lawsuit.

With systems and organizations set up all around the world to support Indigenous storytellers (New Zealand, Canada, Norway, Australia) there are calls to better authenticate Native storytellers in funding processes. Debates over story sovereignty, Indigenous identity and cultural appropriation are taking place, and the role of ‘sensitivity reader’ is expanding from literature into film. It seems the times of non-Natives playing Native roles in films has passed, in much the same way as the passing of non-Natives telling Native stories without the depicted communities’ involvement, inclusion or permission (and yes, I know there are still ongoing exceptions).

Rena Owen as land rights activist Dame Whina Cooper in the forthcoming biopic Whina, from James Napier and Paula Whetu Jones.  
Rena Owen as land rights activist Dame Whina Cooper in the forthcoming biopic Whina, from James Napier and Paula Whetu Jones.  

As I wrote in part one of this series, we could count the number of Indigenous feature-film directors on two hands at the end of last century. Now, it’s not a difficult task to put together a Letterboxd list of over a hundred Native-identified filmmakers bringing diverse dramatic and documentary feature works across a range of genres to the screen. If we want a list of a dozen queer Native features, we can have one! If we want a list of 50 Native women-made features about Native women and their lived experience, we can have that, too.

This change didn’t happen out of nowhere. Activist groups around the world planted the seed: Ngā Tamatoa, Te Manu Aute and Polynesian Panthers in Aotearoa New Zealand; the Black Panthers in Australia; the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations) in North America; and ALOHA and subsequent sovereignty movements in Hawai’i.

From Te Manu Aute came the Māori screen umbrella organization Ngā Aho Whakaari. AIM planted the seed in establishing the American Indian Film Institute, and its American Indian Film Festival, in San Francisco (founder Michael Smith was one of the original Native rights occupiers at Alcatraz in the 1970s). Hawai’i now has PICCOM; Canada has its own Indigenous Screen Office; Sámi has the International Sámi Film Institute; the Inuit, Isuma.tv.

And in Latin America, the Latin American Council on Indigenous People’s Film and Video (CLACPI) has, since 1986, represented and pushed for Native-language films and Indigenous-told stories on screen. The open-access Latin American Cinegogia project helpfully tracks films that use the lens of cinema to represent Indigenous subjects, look at colonization and colonialism’s lasting effects, and the cultural legacy of Latin America’s Indigenous populations.

These grassroots movements have lobbied for resources for filmmakers who now take their films around the world on both mainstream and Indigenous film festival circuits. All of this work is not before time.

In part one, I wrote about Peruvian filmmaker Óscar Catacora, whose film Eternity (Wiñaypacha), Peru’s entry in the 2018 Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category, was the first feature made entirely in the language of the Aymara. Between the publishing of part I and the filing of this follow-up, we received the devastating news that Óscar had passed away, suddenly, while filming his next project, at just 34 years of age. It is a huge loss for Peru’s film family, for Latin American Indigenous voices, and for the Native filmmaking world. May we not lose more gifted storytellers before their stories are able to be told.

Director Óscar Catacora (left) on location with Vicente Catacora during the filming of Wiñaypacha (2017).
Director Óscar Catacora (left) on location with Vicente Catacora during the filming of Wiñaypacha (2017).

Twenty-one years into the 21st century, the diversity of Fourth Cinema stories has broadened and strengthened. We tell our stories now. Of life in the forest, desert, snow and bush. Of life on the ‘Rez’, in ‘Country’ and back on the ‘marae’. Life in the urban ghetto and sprawling cities. Stories of all the people and places in between.

Many challenges remain, but one thing now looks certain: New Native Cinema is here, and this is something most certainly worth celebrating. Mauri Ora!


Leo Koziol (Ngāti Rakaipaaka, Ngāti Kahungunu) is Letterboxd’s Indigenous editor.

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