Seedcast: Indigenous Filmmaking, Using Technology to Adapt to COVID

by Ben-Alex Dupris

Indigenous peoples and communities have long used stories to understand the world and our place in it. Seedcast is a story-centered podcast by Nia Tero and a special monthly column produced in partnership with the South Seattle Emerald about nurturing and rooting stories of the Indigenous experience.

I recently directed a tribal honoring segment for All In Washington: A Concert For COVID-19 Relief. It was aired live on local television and now lives on Amazon Prime. The celebrity-filled virtual event, which included Coach Pete Carroll, Macklemore, and Pearl Jam, raised 45 million dollars for local organizations struggling desperately to provide support to Washington State residents during coronavirus. It was an exciting opportunity to get paid for creative work in the middle of the pandemic.  

Independent filmmakers have been hit hard by COVID-19. Our overall inability to travel and shoot during the pandemic has complicated work requirements. For the first few months of the COVID-19 lockdown I was unsure of what to do. Being an artist means that employment is already rare. On top of that, Indigenous artists and filmmakers have struggled to find solid footing in the business of creativity for decades. I know so many other Native filmmakers who have had to quit their dreams and move on to other ways of making their living. I have stayed vigilant, though, trying to find comfort in my own filmmaking despite the challenges.

I am lucky enough to have found a certain niche and aesthetic for myself in Native cinema by carefully studying Indigenous filmmakers and stories of the past. My niche translates well in the current resurging climate of pro-Indigeneity through media representation. I find filmmaking is a space where current affairs collide with activism and pop culture. There probably isn’t a more relevant time for a Person of Color to tell stories like this. Our nation is growing more savvy, even hyper-aware of the impact misleading facts or truths can have on vulnerable communities that lack representation in the news. In these times, the act of creating complex stories to counter the commercial narrative of Fox News and even CNN, is vital. 

Producer/director Ben-Alex Dupris (photo courtesy of the filmmaker).

Artists have always stood on fragile ground, though. My own maturation process as a filmmaker has taken a long time, and I wouldn’t be in the field if I hadn’t already spent many years around the arts pursuing the same social justice initiatives for tribal nations, in various mediums besides film and video. COVID-19 has brought even more challenges to the work. For instance, I have underlying health conditions that put me at greater risk for developing a bad case of COVID-19. I will not feel comfortable running my camera again until there is a vaccine in place that works and is widely accessible. So, when I was offered the opportunity to direct a segment for the All In Washington benefit concert with a remote film team, I was very excited to work on learning a new way of creating film.

With our remote film team, I was able to watch the cameraman’s video monitor over my cell phone. They maintained safety protocols for COVID-19 by wearing masks, and distancing by at least six feet. The camera had longer lenses to provide more physical space between the equipment and people without compromising our creative vision. It worked out very well! It inspired me to consider what the future of filmmaking could look like for all projects, in the years to come. I think the advances in technology have really shifted the way we can collaborate from different places, remotely.

I can now imagine an entire genre of filmmaking emerging from remote production, even long after COVID-19 is no longer a threat. A genre where filmmakers can design, produce, and distribute films from anywhere in the world. I’m hoping that both independent media and creative tech companies will continue to design and implement new ways of using technology to push the boundaries of what is possible in our field. 

Indigenous people have made tremendous strides in the creative professions over the years, and filmmaking is definitely an art form that is reaching a new level of recognition and influence. In 2020, the balancing act of bringing tradition and technology together is something I find remarkable. I don’t know if anyone could have imagined this generation of tribal nations finding our groove within the paradigm of futurism. Like many Indigenous cultures around the world, we are embracing whatever we can in hopes of keeping focused on the paramount goal. At the very core of our unspoken mission statement we are compelled to create and document our lives today with one heart for the people. 

Production still from National Urban Indian Family Coalition PSA. (Photo: Jon Kimble)

Like everything that we have endured over the past few hundred years, Native American artists continue to adapt and evolve. We will adapt and grow into the future of technology with the caveat that it doesn’t take away from our discovery and wonder for Mother Earth. That whatever story we tell is a story worth preserving, digital or otherwise, for the next seven generations of humanity. We hold the most important part of our stories in our heart, and have secured our own place in tribal communities through relationships that span generations in the past. Our mission is to reflect a reverence for the natural world and provide comfort for the generations to come that we will always survive. 

There is a spirit of independence that comes from making films that would not otherwise be conceived. There is always a role for us to play in shaping our stories for others to better understand our struggles as a people. It’s one of the reasons why I haven’t given up yet. Narrative re-alignments from the Indigenous perspective are incremental but desperately needed in the context of American history. I am committed to the work, regardless of the size of my impact. Hopefully my perspective gives other Native thinkers a head start when it’s time for them to pick up where we have left off.

Ben-Alex Dupris is an enrolled member of the Colville Confederated Tribes. Over the years he has worked in commercial entertainment, tribal language preservation, media justice, and youth media training. 

Featured image: Production still from All In Washington: A Concert For COVID-19 Relief, shot in 2020. (Photo: Jason Koenig)