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Native filmmaker draws on Flathead upbringing

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POLSON – It’s a big leap, going from producing a 15-minute short film to making a feature-length one.

But a woman who spent her childhood on the Flathead Indian Reservation started on a path last week that could help her make the jump.

Brooke Swaney is in New Mexico over Memorial Day weekend for the first of a two-stage development program sponsored by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute. She’s one of four fellows and projects chosen for Sundance’s 2012 NativeLab Fellowship, which provides continuous and direct support to Native American, Native Hawaiian and Alaskan Native filmmakers.

She took her script, with the working title “Circle,” with her.

It’s a major expansion on the 15-minute short she made for her thesis as a graduate student at New York University’s Film School, called “OK Breathe Auralee.”

“Circle” is about the same young Native American woman “who was adopted away from her community,” Swaney told “On Native Ground,” “and her wanting to reconnect with her roots – kind of through a roundabout way of really wanting to have a baby.”

Swaney wrote the feature-length script at the home of her mother, Ellen, who lives near Polson on Flathead Lake. Ellen says it weaves the four directions and four elements – air, earth, water and fire – so important in Native traditions into the story.

“Originally I wanted four different characters in four different parts of the United States,” Swaney says, “but after making the ‘Auralee’ short I realized her story is so big, I have to just tell her story.”

It’s an adoption story that eventually leads Auralee from her home in New York City back to the place – a Montana Indian reservation – where she was born, but never knew.

Getting such a project by an aspiring young filmmaker off the ground, that’s the challenge.

The Sundance fellowship is a big step.

Brooke Pepion Swaney is a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and is also of Salish descent.

She grew up attending schools in Polson and Ronan through fourth grade, then moved to Helena when her mother took a job there in state government.

Neither “Auralee” nor “Circle” are autobiographical, Swaney says – she’s not consumed with the idea of having a baby – but she can relate to her lead character in that she too left much of her family and reservation behind for a new life in what to her was a “big city” of 35,000, albeit at a later age and with her biological mother.

Although it wasn’t planned that way, both the short film’s musical composer and star were Native women who were adopted and raised outside of their tribes.

“When I got the script I was kind of shocked,” Kendra Mylnechuk, who played Auralee in the short film, told “On Native Ground.” “It’s about a Native woman in her early 30s who is wanting to have a child, and who had been adopted out of the tribe. I am a woman in my early 30s who wants to have a child and was adopted out of my community. It hit very, very close to home.”

Mylnechuk, who attended the University of Montana, said the most difficult thing was “not getting it confused with my story, but allowing it to be what Auralee was going through. But it was definitely not difficult to connect to.”

Brooke Swaney graduated from high school in Helena, and earned a degree in psychology from Stanford University before returning to Helena to work for the Indian Law Resource Center while she flirted with the idea of law school.

But she’d long been interested in film, and took a shot at NYU’s famous film school.

“With the help of her friends, she made a short film she submitted to NYU,” Ellen says. “It was about a young Indian man noticing all the stereotypes and images around him.”

Called “The Indigenoid,” it focused on the man’s reaction to things like Jeep Grand Cherokees.

“The Indigenoid” got her into NYU’s graduate film school, and “OK Breathe Auralee” sent her out into the real world of filmmaking.

***

The Sundance Institute promotes and supports independent filmmakers; the NativeLab Fellowship is geared to emerging Native American and Indigenous peoples.

The May workshop, held on the homelands of the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico, has the four fellows receiving guidance from experienced screenwriters and filmmakers.

One, Billy Luther, is a former fellow whose “Miss Navajo” project was nurtured through Sundance’s NativeLab Film Fellowship.

Others include documentary filmmaker Fenton Bailey (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “Inside Deep Throat,” “Party Monster”), independent filmmaker Adam Bala Lough (“The Carter,” “Bomb the System”) and screenwriter Zach Sklar (“JFK”).

“We’re working one on one with them, and they’re giving us immediate feedback,” Swaney said Friday. “Their expertise is so invaluable, and it’s very motivating.”

The other three fellows this year are:

Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota and Navajo) whose feature-length project, “I Am Thy Weapon,” is about a dispirited 17-year-old and her precocious 8-year-old sister as they deal with life on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

Ciara Leina’Ala Lacy (Hawaiian). Her documentary, “Out of State,” focuses on a group of native Hawaiian career criminals incarcerated thousands of miles from home in Arizona, who form their own weekly hula club.

Jeffrey Patrick Palmer (Kiowa). He’s also a documentarian. “Honor Beats: Singers of the Four Directions” will take viewers inside the sacred circle of Native drum groups.

Bird Runningwater, director of the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program, said the five-day workshop starts Sundance’s involvement with the artists and their projects.

The second stage will take Swaney and the others to the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, where they’ll have the opportunity to network with the many film professionals the festival attracts.

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