Native stories featured at Durango Film Festival

Wes Studi (center) sits at a question-and-answer panel with actors John Rubano (left) and Maggie Maddock (right) at the Durango Independent Film Festival on Saturday, March 1. Studi spoke about his featured film, “The Only Good Indian,” giving details involving the work life of an actor and his process of choosing film roles.
Damon Toledo | The Southern Ute Drum

It was no Hollywood red carpet, but that didn’t stop the ninth annual Durango Independent Film Festival from drawing moviegoers for the five-day extravaganza.

From Wednesday, Feb. 26 to Sunday, March 2, film lovers of all ages flocked to downtown Durango to view a selection of independent movies, including an array of Native-themed films.

Special guests were in attendance promoting their features. Wes Studi, veteran Native actor who has achieved a steady career with roles in “Dances With Wolves,” “Avatar” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” spoke at an open discussion in the Durango Arts Center on Saturday, March 1. Studi described the process of preparing for roles and searching for the right ones. He was accompanied by actors John Rubano and Maggie Maddock, both who have a profession in independent films.

“It’s up to you as an actor to build a backstory,” Studi said. “There’s hardly rehearsal time on television and very little on film. You need to know what your part does, and that will depend on the director.”

Rubano said acting is mostly about rejection and failure.

“If you can accept those, then you’ll do great. You just know a role when you really connect with it. It clicks,” he said.

“The Only Good Indian,” a 2009 film starring Studi, had a special screening at the festival. Studi plays a bounty hunter of Cherokee descent named Sam Franklin who has renounced his Native American heritage, believing that adherence to the morals of the Anglo lifestyle is the only way for Natives to survive. He begins a search to return a Native American boy who escaped from an Indian boarding school after being taken from his family and forced to assimilate in a white society.

Studi is no stranger when it comes to Native roles. He has portrayed a Native character in more than 20 films.

“I was able to cross over,” he said. “I was able to jump into parts that weren’t ethnic specific, parts that didn’t call for the Native look. The nature of the business is built towards types and they look for ones that fit into the story … [specifically], Western- and Native-themed films is where you can get a start to prove yourself.”

Included in the festival was a showcase that put a spotlight on Native American-themed features, shorts and documentaries.

“Sigo: A Hunter’s Story” is a documentary short that follows the adventures of David and Ryan Sigo, hunters of the Suquamish Tribe from Washington, who learn about the world while maintaining their cultures and traditions. In the film, the grandfather and grandson explain the importance of hunting and its prominence within the Suquamish heritage.

“Winter in the Blood” is a 2013 film starring Chaske Spencer, most famous for his portrayal as Sam Uley in the “Twilight” series. Spencer plays the role of Virgil First Raise, an alcoholic farm boy raised on the reservations of Montana. Plagued by visions of his deceased father, he sets out on a journey of discovery in hopes of grasping the truth of his origins while dealing with his darkest demons. The film features many Native subjects, including the contrast between Natives and non-Natives in a single community.

“Storytelling is the oldest profession in the world. That’s how we communicate as human beings,” Studi said. “You can talk to someone about how your day is and put it on a script, painting, or any kind of art. If I believe what I say when I’m in front of the camera, then you as an audience can believe too.”

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