News Column

American Indian Film Festival: Things looking up

October 31, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 31--Tantoo Cardinal has been acting for four decades, but the Canadian actress who is best known for her supporting role in "Dances With Wolves" says this is the best time for Native American actors and filmmakers.

"A story I've stuck to the last few years is you're about to see the stories our filmmakers are working on," Cardinal said during a recent visit to San Francisco. "There are the usual hurdles -- finances. ... At the Toronto International Film Festival (in September), there were six of our projects. That's not a Native American (festival) sidebar, but right down mainstream."

Cardinal will be back in San Francisco for the American Indian Film Festival, which begins Friday. She has three films in the festival -- the opening-night film, "Chasing Shakespeare" (co-starring Danny Glover), a coming-of-age romance; the Quebec-filmed period adventure "Maina," which closes the festival on Nov. 9; and the environmental documentary "Standing on Sacred Ground," for which she provides her voice.

Cardinal will be here for the final weekend, which includes the awards ceremony and gala on Nov. 10 at the SFJazz Center. The festival, now in its 38th year, is far different from when Cardinal first came to the festival decades ago.

"If you look back over the years to the beginning of this festival, there was barely any product," she said. "Then you started to see the growth and change."

Evidence: The existence of a film distribution panel (next Thursday) for emerging producers and directors. But there is still a long way to go. Cardinal says that despite being in some major Hollywood films ("Legends of the Fall," "Shattered," "Black Robe") it's still tough for her and other Native American performers to get roles.

"We have people in the space programs, a player in the NBA (and the NFL)," Cardinal said. "But as far as mainstream film, they think of me as Native American. There's all kinds of traps on who we are or where we are. I've been in this business for 42 years, and it took that long to play Shakespeare on the main stage."

Although some in the Native American community are not fond of "Dances With Wolves" because it was made by and stars a white man (Kevin Costner), Cardinal says the film opened a lot of doors for Native American actors and filmmakers because of the Oscar-winning film's popularity, which at least in a small way made the public more accepting of Native American stories.

"It was great working on the project," Cardinal said. "At the time, it was my hope that this would be the last of it -- that we wouldn't need white people in the middle of our stories. It some ways, it kind of was. ... It portrayed us as human beings, and that was important as well."

Looking at the emerging young talent at this year's festival, it's easy to share Cardinal's enthusiasm for the future. "It's all about shaking a few shekels loose," she smiles. "Our filmmakers are coming up with the goods."

38th American Indian Film Festival: Friday-Nov. 9 at the Delancey Street Theatre, 600 Embarcadero Blvd., S.F. Awards ceremony and gala on Nov. 10 at the SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St., S.F. (415) 554-0525. www.festival.aifisf.com.

G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: ajohnson@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @BRfilmsAllen

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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