By Barbara Twist
Our last of the Cinereach Producer Award recipients, Alexandra Lazarowich, is an award winning Cree Producer who is passionate about telling Indigenous stories. Her most recent documentary, FAST HORSE, premiered and won the Special Jury Award for Directing at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Alex spoke to Dear producer about the concept of capacity-building in our industry, how she has moved away from explaining her culture to others and has put that energy into making films for indigenous people to see themselves reflected in positive ways, and how she felt a personal responsibility to make FAST HORSE to provide her nieces and nephews an indigenous hero to see on the big screen.
You’re coming off a year where you won both a Special Jury Award at Sundance for your short film FAST HORSE and you were just awarded the Cinereach Producers Award. Can you talk a bit about how that feels?
I feel like when you’re in this industry, you work for a long time and you get a lot of ‘no’s’ on a lot of projects. For the first seven years, it felt like I got a lot ‘no’s’ and then that started to shift and become ‘yes,’ which is incredible. ‘Yes’ to people wanting to make films with me, ‘yes’ to my ideas, and then ‘yes’ to being invited to film festivals. With FAST HORSE, I had very low expectations because I had gotten so many “no’s” before. I think generally when you have had a lot of ‘no’s’, you have to keep your expectations low because you don’t want to be heartbroken all the time.
FAST HORSE caught me by surprise; it’s been a wild ride. I don’t know if I could say what it was about the film that got us into Sundance or why we won the award. All I can say is that we worked really hard on this film and it’s a film I made for my community more than anything. I’m really happy that the film resonated with audiences and with the jury. And now we are officially in the midst of awards season for the film because of our recent win of Best Short Doc at the Traverse City Film Festival.
What is really incredible about Sundance specifically is that they’re not just a film festival; they’re really engaged with filmmakers and interested in career building. They’ve really gone over and above to try to support my career, asking what my next steps are, what my next films are. This level of long term career building is pretty incredible to witness and be a part of.
You bring up a good point about Sundance being involved beyond the festival, beyond the film. How do you see the role of institutions like the Sundance Institute or Cinereach helping producers?
I think what’s great about the Cinereach producing program is their specific support of independent producers, they are the unsung heroes who really never get that much credit and are the last to get paid.
There’s an idea out there that producers are getting rich off of all the films they produce. That is not the case 80% of the time, especially if you work as an independent producer. The Cinereach award is a sum of money with no strings attached. It can be used for a film, for rent, or feeding your kids. People often don’t understand how difficult it is to cobble together a producing career while also achieving a basic standard of living. There are producers out there who are struggling; people who have won Emmys and Academy Awards and still struggle to pay their rent or mortgage.
So what are you doing with your award money?
Last year I was throwing around some ideas around at the Flaherty Seminar in upstate New York with my filmmaker friends, Sky Hopinka, Adam Piron, and Adam Kahlil, who are all experimental film Indigenous artists. We were discussing how there is a lack of funding in the United States specifically for Indigenous filmmakers who want to make experimental work. For people who are expanding the form of documentary and art films, that specific type of funding doesn’t really exist.
We asked ourselves, “In our world, what can we do to create something where we could fund experimental indigenous film artists?” Whether it’s finishing funds, production funds or even just insurance. What could we do to support that? We felt that was an opportunity for building capacity that didn’t currently exist.
So, we put together a collective called COUSIN. Our mission and mandate is to support indigenous experimental artists and fund their work. And when I won the Cinereach Award, I was able to put some of that money towards forming the not-for-profit organization that we needed to create a funding structure. And thanks to the Cinereach Award, we were able to send two indigenous filmmakers, Tracey Rector and KiteKiteKite (Suzanne Kite) to the Flaherty Seminar this year. By the end of this year, we hope to have more funds available for specific projects and to send two indigenous artists a year to attend the Flaherty Seminar.
It’s really incredible and heartening to hear that you took your own Award money and immediately put it to seed, to grow it into something bigger. I wonder how vital collaboration is for you in your films? How do you keep your film community outside of your own work alive?
I would say I am a community-driven filmmaker. I make films that I think are missing within our community collectively. I would not dare call myself an auteur. What drives me is what I feel is lacking in our community, how I can address it, how I can help and now how I can use the power that I have to uplift others. The Sundance and Cinereach support pushed me into a new level where I can help fund other films, or lend my name to projects who need an executive producer to trigger that first round of funding. When they just need that one person who can put their name down and say, “I vouch for this person. This person is going to make a beautiful film.” There are so many stories that are not told because they just don’t have the ability to pay $1,500 for insurance.
I want to give back because it is what other people did for me. I am a director and I am a producer, but I am really driven by how I can help our community move forward, get more work made, and how we can collectively support other indigenous filmmakers.
My role and responsibility is to foster and grow the indigenous cinema landscape. I want our community to be thriving now, next year, five years from now, 15 years from now. I take that very seriously and make it part of my work as a filmmaker.
How did FAST HORSE come about? Did you have a mentor or someone who supported you through that project?
I was working on a different short documentary with my producer, Niobe Thompson and CBC Docs and our access to our characters got pulled so we couldn’t make that film. Meanwhile, Niobe was working on TV series called Equus Story of the Horse and he had met Alison and Cody at an Indian Relay race and asked if I was interested in meeting them, because he had a gut instinct that their story could be a short film.
Niobe is an amazing director in his own right. He could have directed the story himself. Yet he knew that he needed an indigenous voice to tell this very specific story and asked me to direct it. He is a great example of the responsibility of other filmmakers understanding ally-ship, you know? I admire him and am deeply grateful for that because often people just want your advice. They don’t want to hire you as a producer or director. They misunderstand their role in being an ally to the indigenous film community, and just want to hire indigneous people as consultants – so they can feel better about directing an indigenous story and not hiring an indigneous director.
To get funded for FAST HORSE, we went back to our broadcaster, CBC Docs and pivoted – asked if they would be open to making this film instead and they said yes. It goes to show that CBC Docs in Canada is doing amazing work, cultivating upcoming diverse filmmakers and that’s all because of our Executive Producer, Lesley Birchard. She is an ally in the industry and really wants to expand on what diversity means and gives upcoming filmmakers a shot at making shorts.
Going back to the myth of the “producer-takes-all,” I think about the Hollywood Reporter article on the going-away of the middle-class producer. How has that affected you, and are there unique challenges in the indigenous film community that you see?
It’s more complicated in the indigenous sphere of things, partly because at this moment in time we’ve gotten stuck, where there are only a handful of producers who have the credits and the production companies to produce high level projects like a Netflix Series, or a PBS mini-series. There are a handful of indigenous producers who have production companies who can get projects green-lit. There really only exists about three of them in Canada right now and maybe one in the United States. What we’re noticing is that there’s a bunch of incoming filmmakers who are new and don’t have the resume or reputation to get their projects green-lit and end up stuck in the world of making short films. That’s not a slight on short film because I love short films. But it is a problem when we aren’t given the opportunity to level up, to expand our skill set, knowledge and build a CV that can get us into the room with studios.
But it’s very challenging to pay your rent making short films–
Extremely challenging. So how do you work your way up in the industry? We’re in a cycle where the same three producers get hired over and over again.
Then, how do we engage with new and upcoming producers, teaching them what they need to do to become the company that gets projects green-lit? With cinematographers for example, everyone wants an indigenous cinematographer, but there are only four who have the appropriate credentials for a Netflix mini-series.
The sheer number of emails I get saying, “Alex, do you know an indigenous producer? Do you know an indigenous female director? Do you know an indigenous cinematographer?” I basically had to list the same four people and those people are booked for the next four years.
So we’re also figuring out how we can share the projects and get people in the door who are maybe not as experienced but just as talented. How do we help them build their CV so they can take those jobs as well? It’s a big issue that we’re all trying to solve and none of us really have the answer yet.
I can also imagine that all this time spent on capacity-building is time not spent on your own projects or on your own creative work. What are some challenges you’ve faced, or boundaries you’ve learned to set for yourself, to make sure your focus is as much on your own work as it is on strengthening growing the community as you move up?
That’s such a good question. I haven’t yet. In all honesty, I feel very privileged to work in this industry, to pay my rent working in this industry. I don’t think I’ve found what that balance could be, or even begun that conversation with myself. Getting emails all the time for recommendations, having that open communication, there’s no doubt it takes a lot of fucking time, but I love this industry and I love making films. I’m open to doing all of these things because, fundamentally, I care about what the industry is going to look like in the future.
At times you feel like you’re working in your little void. When you can’t see the forest, but the trees, then you step out of it and you realize, “There are these other people. How can we all combine forces or at least share the news in some way?” imagineNATIVE Film Festival and the Sundance Institute, with their indigenous program are doing some really incredible capacity-building work.
And what about when that capacity-building bleeds over into educating audiences?
A lot of the talk in Canada specifically is about reconciliation and what reconciliation actually means. What reconciliation means to me is that it’s not on me to educate non-native people about native issues. It’s on the person to do that work themselves and come to an understanding about how they fit into all of this. I don’t mind being someone who answers questions on the side, but I’m not here to make someone feel better about what they’ve done or what they haven’t done for the indigenous community, that’s not my role.
Often, when I’m mentoring other indigenous filmmakers, they can get stuck in the weeds of their films wanting to explain everything to everybody. I just ask them, “”Who are you explaining this to?” And they’ll say, “It’s for the general population.” Okay, but is that really your message? Do you want your film to be about educating non-indigenous people? Its okay if it is but who is this for? I think that’s a question that we should all be asking and I think someone who is doing incredible work is Sky Hopinka.
You watch his films and it’s a split: either you get it or you don’t. I think that’s kind of fucking awesome because so many other filmmakers have been doing that their whole life. Martin Scorsese doesn’t have to explain anything about Italian culture, and yet we as indigneous filmmakers are always put on the spot as people ask, “Please educate us.” It’s presented as our job, our role to educate them if we’re invited to a space. For me, that’s off the table at this point. It’s a personal thing for me. And it goes for all communities, basically, any minority community or any minority religious community. The expectation that you have to be the people who educate people all the time, and oftentimes, that’s so labor-intensive that you end up just being stuck on a cycle of only ever doing that and never, like you said, creating anything or doing anything else because you’re too busy responding to everybody.
As a filmmaker, every film you make goes into your history of work, into creating a legacy. Looking back on the films that you’ve made so far and then looking ahead to what’s next, what do you see as certain things that you want to bring forward? As an indigenous storyteller, do you see certain stories that have been told too much, and instead, where are you excited to see new stories go?
This is something that took me quite a while to figure out. In my early years of filmmaking, I thought that if I explained to non-indigenous people enough, they would understand our culture and my people so they wouldn’t be racist or would at the very least be more open-minded. I realized in that time of my life that it wasn’t doing anything.
The films that I was making early on were very specific to community problems that I was trying to solve. Basically, I was trying to educate everybody. I have moved so far away from that now. With FAST HORSE, I made that film because I wanted my nieces and nephews to have somebody to look up to because there are very few native heroes. Other than a few hockey players, there’s no one who’s indigenous who is framed as a hero in any film that I’ve seen in recent memory. I took that on as a personal responsibility to show someone who is a hero, who works hard. To show that sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you want it to, but you still get up.
I’ve moved so far away from explaining my culture that I really only make films for indigenous people to see themselves reflected in positive ways. Within the film industry, a lot of what’s been sold to us as indigenous people is that you die, you have addiction issues, you live in poverty, there’s no way out and that’s just it. That’s as good as your life is going to get. That’s a big lie that’s been sold to us for a long time.
That’s not to say that there aren’t these issues that needs to be worked through [in our community.] There’s amazing work being done by other filmmakers that are cracking open some of these bigger issues. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and her films are incredible.
But for for me personally, I just couldn’t make films about trauma anymore because I was internalizing a lot of that. And if I’m internalizing that, I can’t imagine a small kid in a remote community that may not have anything: food, clean drinking water, a safe space – internalizing that trauma. A big part of the future casting of what indigenous cinema is striking a balance. My next project is an indigenous romantic comedy and only because I’ve never seen of a native woman fall in love on screen and be happy and live happily ever after. I’m 33-years-old and I’ve never seen someone who looks like me fall in love with somebody and actually be in love with somebody and not die at the end of the movie. That’s fucked up. That’s really fucked up.
One of the biggest issues we’re facing in indigenous communities is youth committing suicide, ages 9 to 11 – young kids who think that they have nothing to live for. I want them to watch a film that brings them some hope, to show them there is something bigger out there for them. I want to be a part of giving a generation hope. I want to make films like that, but I also want to help other people make films like that to let these kids know that they’re not alone and to let these kids know that there is definitely hope and it does exist. It just needs to be made and we all need to see it.
If you present the society that you want to live in, on-screen, people see that. There’s something about film that’s transcendental and it’s very helpful to a lot of people who maybe have certain expectations or imagine people to be a certain way, and when they watch a movie that gets broken down bit by bit.
100%. When I started producing this project, someone said it was like wish-fulfillment. That’s what we need, especially when it gets really dark and when it’s really hard. That’s exactly why I wrote the script, because I wanted to see all of these things. If you can’t see someone being an astronaut, you can’t be one. We’ve been sidelined for a really long time and pushed into the margins. We’re such a large community of people. It’s the fastest-growing community in Canada and in the United States, I think we’re the second or the third.
We’ve just been forgotten about for a really long time. Now people are paying attention because of things that are going on in the world. There’s so much amazing work out there that’s being done, not just by myself, but other amazing filmmakers who are creating worlds that I also want to see and I want to go to the movie theater and pay money to see those worlds. I know I’m not alone in that. I just hope that it just keeps building and building. Then we won’t really have to have conversations like this in five years or 10 years from now.
I have two questions that I like to wrap up my interviews with. The first is, do you have any specific tools that you use as a producer?
This sounds so lame, and is a question of affordability, but having a really good laptop is important. And hard drives. Be advised, back everything up. Especially if you’re making your own films, backup your films into multiple places and different projects. It sounds so obvious, but I’ve been bitten by that, where a hard drive crashed and we lost footage.
I also love Google Docs, Google Docs is my favorite for everything! And, find yourself an accountant who is good and works in the industry, hire them because they will save your life…I think that was the number one piece of advice I got really early on. It takes a lot of stress off of my shoulders.
I never went to business school. I studied history so I was shocked when I first started in this industry how much business management skills I had to learn in a short amount of time. There’s a part of me that wishes I did go to business school because opening a company is time-consuming and expensive. All of those things I had to learn on the fly and when you learn on the fly, a lot of times it costs you a lot of money and you make mistakes.
Find yourself a really good entertainment lawyer. Not just for when you’re on a project, but someone who you can shoot an email to anytime and ask questions, whether it’s rights or licensing. Forming a solid relationship with a lawyer who’s not going to gouge you and who knows what they’re doing is so important. I’ve seen people lose their house because they were sued or didn’t read a contract thoroughly and didn’t realize what was actually on the line.
Also, you need that extra bit of money stored away because somewhere down the line, there’s going to be some expense. Someone’s going to miss a flight or the hard drive is going to fail and you’re going to need that extra thousand dollars for those moments.
Last question, what makes you feel like a producer?
Oh my God, I don’t even feel like a producer. I’ve had a hard time saying it out loud. I am just answering emails, one email at a time but I think one of the things that makes me feel like a producer, you can laugh at me, is having my iPhone on the 24-hour clock. [laughs] That sounds so lame, but I am shocked how many times strangers, family members, friends they grab my phone and try to look at the time, and they’re like, “Why do you have your phone on 24-hour clock? Are you in the military or something” and I’m like, “Because our call sheets go out and they’re all in 24-hour clocks and I am terrified of missing my call time!”
Alexandra Lazarowich is an award winning Cree Producer, Director and Screenwriter whose work has premiered at film festivals around the world. She is passionate about telling Indigenous stories. Her most recent documentary FAST HORSE recently premiered and won the Special Jury Award for Directing at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.