Writer-director Sydney Freeland's feature debut, Drunktown's Finest, was shot against New Mexico's mesmerizing landscape and explores life on the reservation in the 21st century. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was included in the 2014 Sundance London program.
Could you tell us in a few words what your film, Drunktown's Finest, is about? I know it's a very personal story for you.
My film is a coming-of-age story about three young Native Americans who want to escape the reservation: a rebellious father-to-be, a promiscuous transsexual character, and an adopted girl who has been raised by a Christian family and wants to reconnect with her biological family.
I am Native American and I was born and raised on a reservation in the Southwestern United States. Filmmaking is not something that people do on the reservation -- it's more about traditional, classical arts like painting, drawing, silver-smithing, weaving, and pottery. That's what I grew up with and I originally went to college to study painting and drawing. While I was there, I was exposed to other mediums like photography, computer animation, writing, screenwriting and, ultimately, filmmaking. It was my last semester of undergraduate studies when I took a film class -- wow, that was what I wanted to do. It was such a strange concept to me that people made movies. It was mind-blowing. People get paid to do this?
There's Ricciotto Canudo's concept of film as the seventh art, encompassing all of the traditional art forms. As a Native American filmmaker, you're breaking tradition insofar as you're bringing this seventh art into the realm of the reservation in order to tell a story that is also about breaking tradition, reversing stereotypes, and escaping one's circumstances. In your experiences as a Native American woman filmmaker, can you talk a little about breaking traditions and breaching expectations?
If I look at myself on paper, I'm a minority of a minority of a minority. But for whatever reason, I've never really thought about it. I have a desire to tell stories through film, and I'll do whatever it takes to do that. There are people who are surprised when I show up because I don't look like the person they expected to see. I don't let it worry me as I know we're all just working together to tell a story.
In terms of working together, a big difference between traditional arts and crafts of Native American culture and filmmaking is that the former is individualized and private, whereas filmmaking is collaborative and public insofar as it requires an audience. What does it mean to be an artist in the private vs the public sphere?
The thing that initially attracted me to filmmaking is the combination of the art forms and the collaborative nature of the medium. I love working with people. I love the isolation of the writing but I also enjoy the chaos, excitement, and pressure of being on set.
There is some footage in the film that I shot entirely by myself, walking around the reservation. I don't think this film could have been made without the democratization of technology, the availability of such inexpensive and effective equipment, and the power to just go out and shoot material. That freedom has helped me grow as a storyteller and as a filmmaker.
Have you thought about your next steps?
I'm working on a sci-fi time travel film right now -- quite a different topic from Drunktown's Finest! That's a feature I'm writing and I'll direct. I also work for a production company in Los Angeles and we're filming a music documentary. Between those two projects I'm definitely keeping busy, but Sundance and this film have opened up some doors and I'm thinking carefully about what to do next. My hope is to continue as a writer/director -- I love the complement of the two.
Do you have any advice for women directors and first time directors?
Learn to accept rejection. Your project will be accepted when it is good enough and the rejections will only force you to make your project better. Every time you get a rejection, it's an opportunity to go back to the project and improve it. My goal is to be the best writer I can be, the best director I can be -- you have to have that mindset if you want to succeed. I try not to think of myself as a woman director or as a Native American director, just a director.