By Rebecca Green
Tracy Rector is a filmmaker, curator, community organizer, and programmer. Currently, she is serving as Managing Director of Storytelling at Nia Tero, a non-profit committed to supporting Indigenous governance and guardianship. In this interview, Tracy discusses producing as a form of advocacy, how her mixed race heritage has influenced the nuance in her storytelling, and why she is driven to fight for equity in representation.
** This interview was recorded in September 2020 ***
Tell me about your job as the Managing Director of Storytelling at Nia Tero Foundation? I love that title.
At the beginning of August 2019, I accepted this position at Nia Tero as Managing Director of Storytelling, and I agree it’s a pretty awesome title. Essentially, I head up all of the creative initiatives for Nia Tero, which also happened to include things like communications and marketing and creative grant making. When I began, there was not necessarily a framework for the position.
It’s been such a fun opportunity to create a platform for what storytelling could look like at Nia Tero and with our partners, communities, and collaborating organizations. It’s been a great year of producing content such as podcasts, short films, and portraits of our Creative Fellows, and we are starting a new feature documentary. Overall, the work is fulfilling because it’s truly in solidarity with Indigenous communities on a global scale. It’s been a huge learning curve to.
I noticed when I looked at the website that you can choose translations for English, Spanish, Portuguese or French.
Yes, our primary areas are in the boreal as part of Northern Canada, all of the Pacific known as Pasifika, and Amazonia. We want to make sure our content reaches all these regions and these are the primary languages. We want to be accessible. In 2021, we’re trying to do quite a few film projects and other storytelling projects, but also translating some of our key message into Indigenous languages. Also, the fall of 2021 we’re going to build the website out quite a bit and include a blog. We’ve also started a new Indigenous media makers database to help facilitate community networking as well as a platform for the Industry to hire Indigenous talent.
What were you doing before this job?
I’ve been running two nonprofits, Longhouse Media and Indigenous Showcase, both of which are roughly 15-years-old. That work was creating short stories, feature films, art shows and civic engagement campaigns. Over the last couple of years, we’ve been very involved in getting out the Indigenous vote by creating web content to normalize and excite people about civic engagement and voter registration. That’s been a big passion of mine. It’s time to sunset the work of Longhouse Media though, which will phase out by the middle of next year.
Your bio says that over the last 18 years, you have produced or directed over 400 films, how is that even possible? That’s like 22 projects a year. How have you managed that volume of work?
[laughs] I’m the first to say I’m not alone in what I do. I’m not a one-person show. Everything I do is a team effort and collaborative. That allows for massive amounts of storytelling, but also I’m just driven. I work hard and do a lot and I’m interested in a lot.
Where does that drive come from?
I would say in terms of my core personality, I’m an advocate. I hope to uplift others in how I live my life. Over the years, all the decisions I’ve made in terms of being a filmmaker, artist, curator, and community organizer, have been about leveraging opportunities to bring about awareness or create communication and collaboration between communities.
In terms of creativity, I’m compelled to learn, explore, and challenge myself, so I’m always open and interested in new projects. For example, about five years ago, I was approached and asked if I knew anything about VR or if I wanted to try my hand at VR. I didn’t have any immersive media or VR experience at the time, but I said, “Yes, it sounds like an interesting challenge.” Then I learned how to make a VR project. It was a story that I truly love and still do. Overall, my drive is really about how to amplify and honor diverse voices.
You’re also the Seattle Arts commissioner. What does that entail, being an arts commissioner of a city?
This is the seventh year I’ve sat in the role and I am in my last few months in the position. I was appointed by the mayor so there’s been a number of mayors since I started, but each successive mayor’s reappointed me for the position.
Essentially, it’s another type of advocacy role for the inclusion of arts in the way the city makes decisions and equity in the arts. Also as a commission, we think about ways to integrate the arts into education, public exhibitions, and into the core DNA of how the city chooses to prioritize its money and its energy. It’s been a life-changing role and pretty mind-blowing, the other artists that I’ve been able to work with, it’s been really humbling.
Unlike our international colleagues, we live in a country that does not have a robust government mandate to financially support the arts. In the Arts Commissioner role, do you see that support is there on a local level?
I think that people do support the arts and we’re seeing that with the Black Lives Matter movement and Defund the Police movement, as well as Indigenous Sovereignty and Black Liberation work that’s happening. Integral to that is the incredible work of artists, whether it be through formal organizations like Firelight Media, Amplifier Foundation or IllumiNative, or if it’s individual or independent artists who are quarantined or at home who are churning out incredible imagery that helps to inspire the revolution that’s happening.
I’m really curious to see what other types of media makers create during this time period. I’m guessing there’s going to be some very intimate stories, but also maybe some more music-based videos and animation. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what we’re going to see in the next few months that pushes people’s comfort levels.
Also, with the election, there’s this way that we’ve been forced to internalize and create in new ways, whether that’s new forms or genres, or the amount of output, or the depth that we bring to our work. I think the election is going to trigger quite a few creative voices to come out even louder and stronger.
How has your work been affected by the pandemic?
A number of the projects I’m part of, especially feature films, are in the editing/post-production stage and there’s been a lot of forward movement. I think those projects may have moved quite a bit slower if it wasn’t for this time. In terms of my work at Nia Tero and the team that I lead, as storytellers, it’s been pretty phenomenal. We’re pushing hard and creating a lot of content and figuring out how do adapt and do something new. I love our team so much!
For example, while we are primarily filmmakers, we decided to try our hand at podcasts, which are essentially tiny audio documentaries, and so we’re really treating them as such. What’s the story arc? How do we bring in content to emphasize what the person is saying? It’s been an opportunity for myself and our team to skill build and grow.
All of this complements the film work. We are also launching a multimedia project, which will be these tiers of storytelling, including film, podcasts, and photo journalism. It’s been pretty incredible because I’m being forced to think more in terms of, I would say, just essentially tapestry is how all of my creative interests can come together and emerge new. Again, this is all in community and requires a lot of collaboration and consent too.
How are you feeling about the future of independent film? I particularly am worried about the lack of financing that’s going to be available and how that is going to really impact which stories get to be told. Do you worry or are you plowing ahead?
Both worried and plowing ahead, but then I see projects such as Lovecraft Country, and I’m blown away by how there’s an interesting storytelling core to that series. There’s the production itself, but they have multi-tiered layers with a podcast and a curriculum. They have all of these ways of utilizing the core material to create an opportunity for social change and education. I think that’s interesting. I wonder if they would have gone that deep with supporting materials if it wasn’t for the fact that content has not been able to be created in the last six months.
Another project that’s exciting is the Indigenous Program at Sundance. They had a production arm for their indigenous makers, but because they weren’t able to come together in person, they encouraged all of their producers to tell stories about the impact of COVID-19 at home, and those have been beautiful pieces.
People are in their home communities, not traveling, not distracted. I’m seeing that there’s not just two-person in the room type of stories, there are also stories where people are reconnecting with culture, community, and family in ways they’ve haven’t before because they were so pressed from the demands of the industry. I’m seeing some really beautiful work and thoughtful storytelling and people being reminded that they’re tired of working for the system, or telling other people’s stories. Many storytellers I know are coming to a place and a certain type of reconciliation with asking who am I? Who are my people? Where do I come from? All of these types of existential questions, they are furthering the work in a new way.
We’re creatives, we’re going to figure it out. I do agree with you that resources and the bigger issue of funding does have an impact. That’s just the practical aspect. Historically, this country isn’t great about prioritizing those needs. But I do see people, in terms of mutual aid, helping one another. I think that is born out of the inspiration of the movement work that’s happening too. I’m seeing a lot of people help one another to tell their stories.
There’s a part of me that feels like a lot of institutionalized aspects of our business need to burn down because the systems are broken. Even Sundance, which we all cherish, has gotten too big and powerful. I think a lot of elements of the current system are going to be lost and I am constantly thinking about how we’re going to rebuild in a more equitable way.
What’s unique to my work is not working within tired, old systems, but figuring out how to open doors, tear those systems down, and more specifically, create new systems. I’m just exhausted by the tired old chains white supremacy.
In regard to festivals, I’ve always said that gathering together in community is an act of revolution. What makes me nervous is not having these opportunities to share space and ideas together.
Community advocacy is at the core of the work you’re doing and I’m curious where that comes from?
I’d say, two things. My mom has a very strong moral compass and has always been a pioneer in whatever she does and has always forged a path that not many others have. She’s certainly an inspiration. But also my father, who just passed away, has influenced me. He was pretty abusive as a result of his deep sadness. Coming from the space of not having a voice, not being seen or heard, it solidified inside myself, that little girl, that one day I’ll fight for other people who might not feel that they have a voice. That has been a longtime drive of mine, to seek justice, equity, and honor alongside others who fall through the cracks.
There are very few awards for producers, what does the Cinereach Producer Award mean to you?
It’s interesting because I still struggle with imposter syndrome. I still struggle with feeling like I’ve not done enough or am doing enough. The award itself came as a shock and a surprise. At the same time, it was a much-needed validation for being able to move forward in a way where I felt like the work I’m doing is making change. I know I’m not a traditional producer. I’m a person who sees filmmaking and this creative life as a vehicle for impacting a better future, for making a better future for future generations. The award came at a time where I was able to share that wealth back out into community with other BIPOC peoples in a way that really made a huge difference.
You are definitely doing enough and you are making a huge impact in the arts, there’s no question. Is there anything I didn’t bring up that you wanted to talk about?
The last thing I want to say is that my mixed race multicultural heritage is very important to me. My identity has characterized my life in a way where I’ve learned to walk a very nuanced path and also supports my tendencies towards advocating for others.
What do you mean by nuanced path?
As a mixed race person, it’s a common story where we are often not seen as enough. I think that has also enabled me to just hear the complexities in other people’s story, to stop and not judge people in binaries, which opens up the path for storytelling in a way that’s more nuanced. The film work and the projects I’ve been part of are direct result of that.
Tracy Rector, Managing Director of Storytelling at Nia Tero Foundation, has a passion for amplifying and making space for Indigenous voices. She brings two decades of experience as a community organizer, educator, filmmaker, film programmer, and arts curator, all infused with her deep roots in plant medicine. For the last 18 years she has directed and produced over 400 films including shorts, features, music videos, and virtual reality projects. Her work has been featured on Independent Lens, Seattle Art Museum, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian, as well as at international film festivals including Cannes and Toronto. Tracy is in her second term as a Seattle Arts Commissioner, sits on the board of the Mize Foundation, and is the co-founder of Longhouse Media.