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Haudenosaunee filmmakers get their own festival

Rochester annually hosts dozens of film festivals, and it’s about to get one more. Indigenous filmmakers, actors, and producers from the region will be spotlighted April 19-25 in the inaugural Haudenosaunee Filmmakers Festival, a new collaboration between Friends of Ganondagan and Rematriation Magazine. Organizers are accepting film submissions through Sunday, Feb. 21.

The pandemic has precluded in-person events this year, so the week of screenings, workshops, and panel discussions will take place virtually. In future years, the festival will be hosted at the Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan.

The festival grew from a couple of existing initiatives, said Michelle Schenandoah (Oneida), who is founder and editor-in-chief of Rematriation Magazine, a publication devoted to creating space for and uplifting Indigenous women’s voices.

The first root was an annual film and lecture series hosted at Ganondagan State Historic Site that spotlighted Indigenous filmmakers, though 2020’s event was thwarted by the pandemic. At the same time, Schenandoah said, Rematriation Magazine recently launched a new film series project called Indigenous Women’s Voices and had submitted the films to a number of Indigenous-based film festivals, including Vision Maker Film Festival and Red Nations Film Festival.

“We wanted a chance to really highlight filmmakers from within our nations,” Shenandoah said with regard to the founding of the HFF. “Within the larger context of Indigenous film festivals, you might see one or two Haudenosaunee filmmakers or actors, but there are quite a few working in film.”

For example, filmmaker Terry J. Jones (Seneca) has several documentary and experimental films available to stream on Amazon Prime. Former professional lacrosse player Neal Powless (Onondaga) was a cultural adviser, producer and actor for the 2012 wide-release film “Crooked Arrows,” about an underdog lacrosse team making its way through a prep school league tournament in Upstate New York.

Gary Sundown (Seneca) had small roles in the 2005 film “The New World,” starring Colin Farrell and 2020’s “A Quiet Place Part II.” Oren Lyons, a Faithkeeper for the Onondaga nation, is also an actor and producer with the film company One Bowl Productions. And Devery Jacobs (Mohawk) plays Sam Black Crow, a half-Cherokee Two-spirit college student in the Starz television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.”

In 2020, director Katsitsionni Fox (Mohawk) released “Without a Whisper,” a documentary about Haudenosaunee women’s influence on the early women’s rights movement. The film was meant to premiere at Ganondagan, but the pandemic prevented that.

Though Fox is a favorite, the HFF organizers noted that the lineup of films and participating filmmakers won’t be announced until the jurying period is over, in early March.

Two-spirit writer and editor for Salt & Sage Books Ronkwahrhakónha Dubé (Mohawk and Abenaki) was thrilled to learn of the new festival, and noted the dearth of good Indigenous representation in film, as well as the importance of storytelling from one’s own perspective.

In particular, they noted, the deficit of Indigenous heroes has had a negative impact on their life, especially since they grew up removed from their community. “The overwhelming majority of stories about Indigenous people involve our genocide,” they said.

And while that genocide may be portrayed as tragic, non-Native filmmakers tend to ignore present-day American colonialism and modern-day Indigenous people, Dubé said. “Having a film festival that specifically uplifts Indigenous creators will give you a brand-new glimpse into contemporary Indigenous society.”

Casting non-Natives as Natives has been problematic as well, Dubé said. “I don't ‘look Native' to many non-Natives, because their perception of Natives probably comes almost exclusively from Hollywood portrayals.”

Aside from presenting films by Haudenosaunee filmmakers, the HFF organizers are planning a series of workshops for Haudenosaunee members who are interested in getting into filmmaking, said Jeanette Jemison (Mohawk), program director at Friends of Ganondagan. “We hope to find filmmakers we don’t know about,” she said.

The festival will also feature a series of panel discussions so the public can hear directly from featured filmmakers.

Those who wish to have their films considered for the HFF can submit in the following categories: New Films (less than 2 years old), Classic Films (2 years or older), Youth Filmmakers (under age 18), Women Filmmakers, and Animated Films. Emerging and established filmmakers alike who are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy can submit films digitally here. Questions can be directed to

The lineup of selected films will premiere live throughout the week of April 19-25. All screenings are free, and ticket holders will have on-demand access to all featured films through May 1. Workshops and panels, which may include fees, will be available only during the festival week. Workshop and panel topics will be announced in early March.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY’s life editor. She can be reached at