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August 4, 2000

Film Maker Discusses Native American Perspectives

By Rachel Weddig
UW-RF News Bureau

Award-winning documentary film maker Lorraine Norrgard sees Native Americans as a racial group trying to keep their heritage while trying to adapt to change.

Norrgard has been a film maker for some 18 years and offered her opinions during a Summer Film Institute at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. Sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the national institute is educating 22 high school teachers on how film influences racial opinions and stereotypes. The five-week institute is coordinated by UW-RF English Professors Carole Gerster and Laura Zlogar.

Norrgard gained attention in 1996 after capturing best dramatic short video at the American Indian Festival in San Francisco for her film, "Looks into the Night." This half-hour film focuses on womenıs contemporary issues.

Based on a true story, it portrays the story of Laura, a medical student in Los Angeles, of Chumash Tribal descent, who, as a child was "adopted out" and separated from her family after her parents died in a tragic car accident. Disturbing dreams and visions propel Laura on a journey of self-discovery. Through a twist of events she is reunited with her Chumash family and culture.

Some themes in the film deal with cultural traditions that the Chumash tribe follows. One custom the film recognizes is whenever a member of the tribe takes something from the earth for items such as medicine or food, they always have to put something back.

Native Americans face a few difficulties when studying to be a doctor. Cutting a corpse is against Chumash cultural beliefs and is "the number one reason why Native Americans drop out of medical college," Norrgard explained.

Another tradition the film shows is respecting those who have passed on. A scene in the movie shows Laura and her cousin Tinker carrying a dead deer from the side of the road into their van. Tinker takes a piece of the deer and says a short prayer for the deerıs soul and then puts it in the van. Tinker explains to Laura that her mom can use the deer for food and the hide for clothes.

The film also showed a scene on how the Chumash are changing with the times. Tinkerıs mom talks about how she still pulls roots from the ground for medicine but also appreciates her touch-tone phone.

When making films and documentaries Norrgard tries to avoid conflict between herself and the tribes. "Everything I do I go through the tribe Iım working with to get their approval on issues and ideas in the film," Norrgard said. "Thatıs the only way the people the film is describing feels ownership."

The cast and crew were primarily American Indian or First Nation descent representing a variety of tribal affiliations and heritages. American Indian professionals working in the film industry filled key roles such as writer, producer, executive producer, art director, and music director.

One main problem with making films about minorities is funding. Norrgard said the budget for "Looks into the Night" was a $5,000 grant given from the American Film Instituteıs Directing Workshop for Women. With the money came a limitation that the film had to be shot within 30 miles of the film institute. Norrgard found this hard to overcome and got approval to direct the film within 35 miles of the institute. Also due to the lack of funding, a lot of the actors worked on a volunteer basis.

Besides being best short video for the American Indian Film Festival, the film also received an honorable mention from the Red Earth Film & Video Festival in 1997. The video also was nominated in 1997 for a series of awards such as best dramatic short for the Dream Speakers Film Festival, best independent short film/video from the Minnesota Film Board, and was a producers guild finalist for the Santa Clarita International Film Festival.

Norrgard realizes that making these films is providing a stepping-stone that allows Native Americans to tell their stories of traditions and customs. She realizes she is, "providing a tool for a lot of other voices out there to be heard."

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