Lakota Filmmaker Receives Sundance Fellowship

Jan 19, 2017

Lakota filmmaker Willi White - selected as a Sundance Institute Native Filmmaker Lab Fellow – is seen adjusting a camera on the set of a music video he directed.
Credit Courtesy Willi White

A Lakota film maker from the Pine Ridge Reservation is on his way to this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.  We spoke with Willi White about his work and what it means to be chosen for a fellowship in the Sundance Native Filmmaker Program.

Willi White’s interest in films goes back to his elementary years at the Red Cloud School.

“I was in the 7th grade,” recalls Willi. “I was about 12. And that was at the time the first Lord of the Rings film came out. And I remember being just so captivated by the whole thing…and wanting to do that…and wanting to be a part of that in any way.”

Lakota film director Willi White has been on the road to the Sundance Film Festival since he was 12.
Credit Courtesy Willi White

Willi held on to his dream through high school and into college where his first film experience was in music videos. He’s worked on 3 feature films over recent years and will now be using the twenty-thousand dollar Sundance Fellowship to help produce his first short film: "Miye, Unkiye– or “You, Me, I.”

“The story is based off the teaching of one of our traditional stories,” Willi explains, “about the different spirits in creation and it’s all about this idea of balance that we need to find and have in order to have true happiness.”

Attending the Sundance Festival will help the young director to network with other film makers great and small. Staff of the Sundance Institute’s Native Filmmaker Lab will assist Willi White in the completion of "Miye, Unkiye" which is scheduled to be completed by October in order to be submitted for next year’s festival.

Bird Runningwater is director of the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous program. He says a lot has changed in the 25 years since the program began.

“At that point our Native film community was really kind of wondering…you know…can we make feature films?” observed Runningwater. “And then ‘Smoke Signals’ kind of kicked off everything. And now the idea of making feature films really isn’t so much of a lofty goal.”

Runningwater says two decades of successful Native filmmaking has brought the dream of young directors like Willie White more sharply into focus. He says Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival has given them a venue for showing their work.

Related links: 

Indigene Studios (Lakota director Willi White's film production company)

Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Film Program