- Associated Press - Sunday, February 19, 2017

PINE RIDGE, S.D. (AP) - When Willi White was an aspiring filmmaker as a teenager, the Sundance Film Festival was a dream. This year, it became a reality.

“It’s overwhelming and surreal for me, because ever since I was young, Sundance has been the pinnacle of where I wanted to go in terms of my filmmaking career,” White said. “Being there and experiencing it was a dream come true.”

The Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/2kOG4PR ) reports White, 27, won a fellowship of $20,000 from the Sundance Native Filmmaker Program. White is a Lakota filmmaker from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where he and producing partner Angel White Eyes started the production company Indigene Entertainment.

White was heading home to Pine Ridge from a job when he learned he was selected as a Sundance fellow.

“It was one of those moments where you’ll never forget where you were,” White said.

White attended the festival last month as a part of the Sundance Lab. He described the festival experience as being overwhelming, as he got a chance to see several films and to network with other filmmakers.

“Being able to see films from long form to short form that were high caliber was incredible,” White said.

White gave special mention to Native and indigenous films that were shown at the festival, including “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” about the Native influence on rock music, and “Dolores,” about agricultural labor activist Dolores Huerta.

The previous portion of the lab took place in June, in which White and another Native Filmmaker Lab fellow met with different filmmakers to hash out the plans for their film.

“We sat down, talked about our script and story, asked if they had any advice,” White said. “It was helpful.”

It was a long way from when White, as a teenager, first fell in love with film upon seeing “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” in theaters.

“I remember being enthralled by the whole experience,” White said. “I was captivated by the world, how it was laid out, and knew I wanted to be a part of this process.”

White was in seventh grade at the time, and a teacher at Red Cloud Indian School asked students to do an end-of-the-year project on different countries. White’s love of “The Lord of the Rings” prompted him to make a short film about New Zealand, where the trilogy was filmed. His film was submitted to the South Dakota Media Fair and won first place in his age group.

White later made short films in high school and studied photojournalism and theater at Creighton University. He has since directed music videos (including Scatter Their Own’s “Taste the Time” video) and has worked as a production assistant on “Winter in the Blood,” a location assistant on the acclaimed film “American Honey,” and a director’s assistant on the upcoming “Woman Walks Ahead” starring Jessica Chastain.

White will use the advice, along with the grant, to make “Miye, Ukiye,” which translates to “You, Me, I.” The film is based on a one-act play by local artist Marcus Bear Eagle.

The film follows a young man struggling with negative aspects of himself that manifest into an evil spirit, and how the struggle helps him discover himself.

“It’s about a young man trying to find balance in his life,” White said. “It says that in order to be whole, you need to accept every part of yourself - the bad, the ugly - to be whole.”

White said the story was based on a traditional Lakota teaching, and the lesson is that balance is required in life. Bear Eagle will play the spirit and help adapt his literary work to film.

“He shared it with me two years ago, and reading it, I knew I wanted to make it,” White said. “And it wasn’t until last year that it was clear we could do it.”

The two are working on the script and hope to finish the short by the submission date for Sundance shorts in October.

White still takes inspiration from fantastical filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Peter Jackson, as well as rising stars such as “La La Land” director Damien Chazelle (whose own “Whiplash” was a breakout hit at Sundance 2014). But with the help of Sundance, he’s on his way to establishing his own career path.

“It’s always been on my mind to be a part of Sundance,” White said. “To be a fellow, to be a part of the Sundance family, is pretty incredible.”


Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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