How an Indigenous filmmaker is challenging narratives and boundaries

Adam Piron’s film collective, COUSIN, pushes the needle in the Indigenous film ecosystem.

 

Kiowa/Mohawk filmmaker Adam Piron wants to expand the way we think about Indigenous film.
Pamela J. Peters / High Country News

Adam Piron's love of film began as a child. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, the Kiowa/Mohawk filmmaker got his start in the industry as a student in the University of Southern California's film program. He became an intern in the Native American and Indigenous Film Program at Sundance and is currently assistant curator for film at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 

Outside his day job, Piron is also co-founder of the film collective, COUSIN. Created to support Indigenous artists experimenting and pushing the boundaries of the moving image, COUSIN often dives into films that convey personal experiences without context, choosing stories that neither adhere to traditional three-act structures or follow Indigenous ways of storytelling.

High Country News recently spoke with Piron by phone at his home in Los Angeles. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Adam Piron: I see Indigenous cinema more as an ecosystem and this development of Indigenous artists branching out and making more experimental or harder to classify work as a sign that it’s healthy and growing in ways that probably weren’t expected. To me, that’s exciting in that it’s this big unknown, and that work is getting a fair amount of attention as it’s happening now, rather than someone piecing together a retrospective 20 or 50 years from now because it just went under the radar. I’d like to see more provocative and aesthetically challenging work by Indigenous artists, rather than trying to fit within certain boxes and be the “Native version” of something that’s already been successful, or even chasing the idea that success is defined by a wide release. In my opinion, it’s not to anyone’s advantage to go that way, because you’re always going to be playing catch-up, and the work is going to trail what it’s emulating. Some of the stronger films that I’ve seen in this new development are films that are so rooted in a personal and specific cultural lens that I don’t understand everything the first time around — and maybe I never will, either. That’s fine, and it works, because they’re invitations to an experience, and it places the work on the audience and stays with them.

I’m also not knocking those who don’t want to make these kinds of works. I’m all for Indigenous people breaking new ground for each other and doing their thing, but I’m more interested in Indigenous artists making their own tables for themselves rather than asking for a seat at someone else’s. I think we deserve our own and we should continue to build that for ourselves. Indigenous artists should be allowed the space to experiment and figure out how they want to tell a film on their own terms, however radical and out there that might be.

High Country News: How does COUSIN fit into that ecosystem? How did it begin?

AP: It essentially got created as a result of two things. One was that we all recognized that recently there’s been some really amazing experimental film work that’s being produced by Indigenous artists. You can use the term “experimental” as deliberately or as loose as you want as a description, because you do have some of these works that are made within an avant-garde context and others that are just Indigenous artists experimenting with form. It’s a spectrum. These artists are creating work that’s rejecting a traditionally Western narrative structure and rooting their work in a specifically Native cultural logic. The other reason COUSIN was created was because there’s a big gap when it comes to finding support specifically for this kind of work.

HCN: What is one of your goals for the work that is produced?

AP: You have a lot of people that get frustrated or artists who say, “They just don't want to hear from Indians,” or “Nobody’s going to give me $60 million dollars to go make this film,” and it’s like: OK, that’s probably true. But also you have to realize it’s a little bit more complicated than “You’re Native.” It’s recognizing that you’re actively trying to get a seat at the table that doesn't want anybody at that table. I don’t care if you're Native or non-Native. You've got to have a certain criteria to sit at that table. And it’s great if you want to make that kind of stuff. God bless you. Go for it. We need more people like that and people that can do that.

“...we can do some pretty amazing things as Native people and experimental film. And it’s unlike anything that anybody has seen out there.”

But the thing is realizing that if you want to engage and you want to do something like that, you have to play by a certain set of rules regardless of whoever you are. And I think the thing with COUSIN is like, “OK, cool, we can do some pretty amazing things as Native people and experimental film. And it’s unlike anything that anybody has seen out there.” And people show up for this kind of stuff. I realize this is going to sound controversial, but just because we live in a non-Native world, so to speak — like, the reality we have to deal with everyday is not one that we’ve decided in a lot of ways – but just because that’s the world we live in doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to do something for that world. I think that you can make something that’s as small and personal for your family or Native people or non-Native people and have it be an expression. And don’t be afraid to not make sense to people, if that makes sense.

HCN: What has the reception been like? 

AP: The reception has been pretty great, as far as the interactions that I’ve seen. I wouldn’t say that I’ve necessarily seen a difference in terms of any of those demographics, but probably more cross-sections of those, and I’d also add that the context in which this work is shown is important. Whether it’s at a film festival, museum or an exhibition space, people show up because they’ve sought out this work or have heard about the artist through press or word of mouth. These audiences come into experience this work with different expectations than they do when they watch a studio-type film. Just given the nature of this kind of work, too, it tends do be a lot more DIY than more mainstream filmmaking, because the work is so personal and you’re already working with limited funding. That said, I’ve seen a little go a very long way with all of these artists — they make it happen, and the very nature of who they are as artists and Indigenous people create work that’s unlike anything out there. We’re still kind of blown away that we’ve managed to take it this far — and we’re still going be pushing it further. Three years ago, this sort of thing didn’t even exist. We’re not going to be funding the next Irishman or something like that, which is fine — that’s not what we’re going for — but this is the type of stuff that we’re into, and we’re trying to do it really well with what we have. And I think if you do that, you get on people’s radars, and — hopefully — it pushes the needle a little bit.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

Thumbnail image by Pamela Peters / High Country News

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