In its fifth decade, the American Indian Film Festival continues to bring important stories to light – SF Chronicle Datebook | Episode Movies

Liz Irons is the director of Indianland, the opening film of the American Indian Film Festival. Photo: AIFF

Filmmaker Liz Irons first heard about the Indian occupation of Alcatraz Island in a news report while traveling through the Bay Area. Decades later – while working on “Wolf Point: Red Road Stories” on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana – Jonny Lee Bearcub Stiffarm, an Assiniboine Sioux woman and the subject of this 2016 documentary, suggested that someone make a film about Alcatraz must .

“I had no idea what she meant — the jail?” Irons recalled in a recent video interview with The Chronicle. “She said, ‘There’s been an Indian crew for 19 months and somebody really needs to make a movie about it.’ I had this spark (of memory) listening to the radio on the Golden Gate Bridge.”

That casual conversation led to “Indianland,” which debuts as opening night at the 2022 American Indian Film Festival on Friday, November 4th. The documentary focuses on the memories of those who took part in the 1969-1971 action, including Bearcub Stiffarm, who are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the occupation with a reunion on the island.

“We didn’t learn this stuff in school,” Irons said. “Not only about Alcatraz, but also about Indian history.”

What history classes and mainstream films have missed, the AIFF has been emphasizing for the past 47 years — ever since University of Washington student Michael Smith hosted the first festival in Seattle in 1975. In 1977, Smith and the festival moved to San Francisco. He died in 2018, but his legacy lives on.

Mytia R. Zavala, Director of the American Indian Film Festival. Photo: AIFF

Festival director Mytia R. Zavala, Smith’s daughter, sees parallels between the era when her father founded AIFF—just a few years after the Alcatraz operation and the 1973 occupation of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Wounded Knee, SD—and today.

“Our climate is just so interesting,” Zavala said in a separate video interview. “There is a lot of racism. There is a fight for justice. We took a leap in history with so many problems.

“We’re really trying to include the community and show who we are as a community. … We see ourselves as an educational tool to amplify our voices, tell our stories, and speak our truths.”

Not all films in AIFF are documentaries. Irene Bedard, Brandon Routh and Chris Mulkey star in the festival’s closing film, The Redeemer, a Western about a pregnant homesteader and her Native American mother-in-law fighting an outlaw gang to survive. Other narrative programs include a quartet of Canadian science fiction shorts, a quintet of short thrillers; and “A Winter Love,” a romantic drama in which a 35-year-old Navajo woman singer-songwriter meets a 25-year-old Lakota man who dropped out of law school.

Irene Bedard and Baylee Toney in a scene from the American Indian Film Festival closing film, The Redeemer. Photo: AIFF

On the documentary side, The Doctrine of Recovery uncovers the implications of Pope Alexander’s papal bull of 1493, a document that authorizes the colonization of indigenous peoples and lands an ocean away from Vatican City and remains in effect. Other films focus on boarding schools in the United States and Canada that attempted to force assimilation into Eurocentric culture on schoolchildren while erasing their native culture. “Mother Earth,” a 10-film short film program, covers a range of topics from fire and water management to Ohlone’s history, culture and more.

There are 79 films in total, spread over 17 programmes. Thirteen of the programs, all shown in the Koret Auditorium at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch, are free.

“Come and learn. See what’s happening in the Indian country,” Zavala said. “See what people are doing to affect climate change or how it is affecting their community. or look at things they can do, traditional practices they could do to protect Mother Earth that are still practiced today.”

The festival covers a lot of ground. There are currently 574 federally recognized Native American tribes. Zavala noted that the number is constantly shifting as more tribes seek federal recognition. There are also the First Nations of Canada whose struggles and triumphs are also recognized by AIFF.

“We’re just touching on different aspects of what our community has been through over the past few centuries,” Zavala said. “Looking at our program will give you an appreciation of the different issues we are addressing and the work that has been done.”

Jonny Lee Bearcub Stiffarm in a scene from ‘Indianland’ by Liz Irons which has its world premiere on Friday November 4th at the American Indian Film Festival. Photo: AIFF

Irons, a Los Angeles filmmaker who is bringing “Indianland” to the city of the Alcatraz crew for its world premiere, sees the AIFF as an important institution, and not just because it provides a first platform for her own work.

“Any specific festival that focuses on a group or a theme will give more attention to those themes,” Irons said. “There are more documentaries, more films about Indian history, about how land was appropriated and everything else. The importance of this festival, which dates way back to the 1970s, is that it provides a place to see these films.”

After two COVID-hit years of AIFF streaming its programs, the festival will be held live in cinemas, to the delight of Zavala.

“It’s exciting to go away from home and produce the festival online and then come back to in-person events,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with people I haven’t seen in a few years and meeting new filmmakers. It’s a whirlwind.”

American Indian Film Festival: Friday November 4th to November 12th. Free – $25. Letterman Digital Arts Center, 1 Letterman Dr. #B,SF; Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., SF; Southside Theater, 2 Marina Blvd., SF

“Indian country”: Friday, November 4, 7 p.m. Screens with the short films “Unlord the Land” and “Long Line of Ladies”. $15-20. Letterman Digital Arts Center, SF

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