The Native Film Every Festival Wants
By Alex Jacobs
Things are going well for Drunktown's Finest. Things are also going well for director Sydney Freeland, who's seeing the payoff from a project that took her six years to make. Post-Sundance, she spoke with ICTMN Santa Fe arts expert Alex Jacobs.
A Navajo director and lead actors, with so many Native actors and actresses, a large Native crew, on location in Gallup and the Navajo Rez, where so many Hollywood films were shot. You have to love this project just from the sound of it. Please tell us your version of this story of how the movie project started?
Growing up, I never felt that I saw any of the people or places I knew represented on film. On a really basic level, I wanted tell a story about that.
However, I also wanted to show how diverse the reservation is. That led to the creation of three main characters. They all represent different communities on the rez and we get to see how they all interact and intersect with each other.
As Native people, we all have heard these stories about Gallup, the Navajo Rez, the 4 Corners as boonies and wasteland, the border-town mentality of Indians and non-Indians. So we can imagine our own script playing out, but we would probably fight stereotypes with other stereotypes. What does it take to properly tell a story about all that history, all these generational issues, to an outside world that really doesn’t care … mostly because they think they already know?
One of the most valuable things I got out of the Sundance Labs was the idea that story is paramount. Because of this, I really tried to put my focus on telling a good story and making relatable characters. My thinking is, if I can get people to relate to these characters and their respective struggles then all that other stuff will work itself out.
That was the overall goal, but there were smaller ideas that I tried to play with. For example, it’s always struck me that a lot of films tend to portray Natives as just sitting around doing nothing, almost waiting for Western or Non-native people to show up. One thing I tried to do with this film was to drop the audience into a world that was already “in progress,” and force them to catch up (instead of vice versa). Hopefully, this adds a little bit of dimension to the community and its characters.
The film's original title was Dry Lake--did your decision to change it to Drunktown's Finest cause any controversy?
The title has a lot of personal meaning to me. I was in elementary school when 20/20 did the “Drunktown, USA” expose. But I remember wondering “why is this big film crew coming into town and they’re just filming the drunks? Why don’t they film my dad, or my friends, or my auntie and uncle? They’re all doing good stuff and they’re not drunks.”
What’s next for you as a director?
I have a sci-fi, time-travel film I’m working on. It’s pretty much a 180 from Drunktown and I’m looking forward to jumping back into the writing process. I also have a TV pilot I’m developing with a writing partner, Steven Paul Judd.