Arts & Events

New: The 40th Anniversary American Indian Film Festival

Gar Smith
Saturday November 07, 2015 - 02:39:00 PM

November 6-13, 2015 at San Francisco's AMC Metreon

Gala 40 Dinner & AIFF Award Show on November 14, 2015 at Hotel Nikko

When most Americans think about movies, the images that typically come to mind involve romance, villainy, heroism, guns, explosions and car chases. Or course, we accept that commercial cinema serves up a world of escapist fantasy but we lack the cultural yardsticks to measure how far removed our movie-going experiences are from anything approaching an average life on planet Earth.

Take those car-chases, for example. In nearly every mainstream movie you expect to see someone driving a car. That's "normal." Well, nope, it's not. The truth is that 91 percent of the people living on this planet today do not and never will own a car.

It may also be true that 91 percent of the films the average movie lover sees in the course of a year do not constitute anything close to a realistic impersonation of the global human condition.

Fortunately, a good dose of remedial Big Screen therapy is headed our way as the American Indian Film Festival (AIFF) brightens Bay Area movies screens from November 6-13. The AIFF's eight-day run manages to include 95 works from Canada and the USA—an incredible selection of feature films, documentaries and 59 shorts (ranging from two to thirty minutes).


Launched in 1975, the AIFF is both the oldest and most prominent media showcase for indigenous cinema, having brought more than 2,000 examples American Indian and First Nations films to enthusiastic urban audiences over the past four decades. (The fact that the festival was founded 40 years ago may explain why it is called the "American Indian" and not the "Native American" film fest.) 

Year after year, the AIFF proves real-world cinema can be just as entertaining as reel-life cinema. This is, after all, the cinema of the world's majority. 

There are no master spies, no superheroes, no glamorous superstars. Instead, the AIFF is grounded in the lives of people who tend to live close to nature, who are members of close-knit families, who live and struggle in small (and often remote) communities. 

These are stories that reflect the experiences of most of the globe's seven billion inhabitants. The protagonists in these films aren't Marvel superheroes or Hollywood royalty spouting the words of award-winning screenwriters, but that doesn't mean the films are lacking in humor, human drama, or uplifting and wrenching emotional swings. 

There are too many films to list (let alone review), so let's just note some highlights (the complete schedule is available online): 

A Sampling of Some of the AIFF Feature Films 


We're Still Here: Johnny Cash's Bitter Tears Revisited

We're Still Here is a documentary based on the book, A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears. Antonio D'Ambrosio's book (and now, his film) charts the evolution of Cash's little-known 1964 protest concept album—a collaborative project with Native American folk artist Peter Lafarge that stands as a heartfelt tribute to the struggles of Native People. 


A Thousand Voices (USA) 

They say "It takes a thousand voices to tell a single story" and this documentary manages to blend an array of voices—from the Navajo Nation, Mescalero Apache Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Tribe. Kiowa Tribe, Pueblo de Cochiti, Ohkay Owing, and Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, Jemez, Santo Domingo, Pojoaque, Santa Clara, Taos, Nambe and San lldefonso—into a universal account of Native American women whose strength and wisdom has helped safeguard Indigenous traditions and culture. 


Songs My Brother Taught Me (USA) 

Filmed in the Great Plains and the Badlands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the film explores the complex bond between a bother and his younger sister—two children searching for a sense of belonging but caught on separate paths. 


Children of the Arctic (USA) 

A coming-of-age film that encompasses a yearlong study of Native Alaskan teens in Barrow, Alaska. Still surrounded by the legacy of their ancestors, these twenty-first century youngsters are members of an isolated culture that has survived centuries in a tundra wilderness now undergoing fundamental change on a rapidly warming planet. 


Le Dep 

A psychodrama about a young Innu woman who works at her family-run convenience store in rural Québec takes a frightening turn when she robbed by a gun-wielding assailant. Lydia's trauma takes a strange turn when she realizes she knows the identity of her assailant. 

OKPIK'S DREAM | Official trailer from Catbird Productions on Vimeo


Okpik's Dream (Canada) 

As a child, Harry Okpik's dream was to own a sled and become a respected dog racer. The Canadian government disrupted that dream when (in an act of savagery that echoes the US Army's genocidal slaughter of the Plains buffalo) federal agents gunned down thousands of Inuit sled dogs across the Canadian Arctic. The 11-year-old Harry watched the snow turn red and believed his dream was dead as well. Fifty years later, Harry remembers the Dog Slaughter and the accident that cost him a leg. This moving documentary follows Harry through several long arctic seasons as he prepares a team of huskies for the Ivakkak—a grueling 373-mile sled race. 

Awards Show & Gala 

A concluding Awards Show & Gala will be held on Saturday, November 14 at the Hotel Nikko. 

For complete details, visit

Ticket and Showtimes 

All evening screenings will be held at the AMC Metreon (135 4th St., San Francisco) and will begin at 7 p.m. 

For ticket information please visit

About American Indian Film Institute & American Indian Film Festival  

"The American Indian Film Institute's mission is to foster understanding of the culture, traditions and issues of contemporary American Indian and First Nations peoples. We encourage Indian filmmakers to bring to the broader media culture the indigenous voices, viewpoints and stories that have historically been excluded from mainstream media. Moreover, our goals include tireless advocacy for authentic visual and work-force representations of Indians in the media."