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For This Year's Indigenous Film Festival Lineup, Normal Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

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courtesy of Wide House

This is the 12th year for Denver's Indigenous Film Festival, and once again it has found unexpected films, work challenging the idea of what kind of people are supposedly "normal" in movies. In these films the Navajo are "normal," indigenous people growing quinoa in Peru are "normal." Nobody else around here has the nerve or the insight to show most of these films.

Here are two worth seeing.

From its title you can guess that Drunktown's Finest is not a happy film. Directed by Sidney Freeland, a first time Native American woman feature director, the movie takes place in Dry Lake, New Mexico, just off the Navajo reservation. Its picture of Navajo life is mostly about poverty, alcoholism, misery and betrayal. Those aren't new things.

The story winds around several characters. Sick Boy (Jeremiah Bitsui) is about to go into the army, he says to earn money to maintain his fragmented family. Nixhoni (Morning Star Wilson) is Navajo-born, but her parents died when she was seven and a non-Navajo couple adopted her. She's about to go to college, but spends her nights sleepless, wondering who she is.

Maybe the fundamental theme of Drunktown's Finest is the question of identity. No one has much sense of who they are or where they're headed. A young man named Felix is now Felixia (Carmen Moore), and online she bills herself as "Sexy Tranny Felixxxa, with three Xs in her name.

The story is not always done skillfully, but the film has a profound sense of place. The buildings are sometimes real adobe, sometimes fake adobe, trailers, newish government housing made to look something like a traditional home, but failing badly at that task. One minute, you feel the oppression of the crummy town with its starving businesses and hapless signs; then comes a shot of a rural roadway with stunning yellow flowers and red-dirt hills in the near background. Like the characters who don't know what it means to be Navajo, you're torn between the ugly town and the stark, magnificent landscape.

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Finding Gaston by Julia Patricia Perez, is a documentary about Gaston Acurio, a now-famous chef in Peru, who is far more than that. He's a culture hero. People credit him with helping to lead a national renaissance, for giving political and social dimension to cooking and cuisine.

Gaston himself is a lively, youngish guy; he's charming and expansive. He goes to the sea to talk with artisan fishermen – fishermen who work alone with hooks and lines, unlike the commercial, industrial fisherman for whom they have both fear and scorn. His vision is to connect these fishermen with specific restaurants – which is good for the food, the restaurants, the fishermen and also the eaters. Gaston meets with indigenous women who demonstrate their skills and dishes for him, which he seems to love – and in exchange for their recipes, he offers all of his own.

The film is most interested in the respect Gaston shows for people, food and culture. He tells one young chef-in-training to understand the lives of his ingredients – what it took for the mussel to grow its shell – and he says to embody that respect for the life of the mussel in his preparation. It sounds easy for the chef to show such deference for the life form he's about to cook and eat, but you get where Gaston is coming from. It matters to him that life contain respect for life, that people do things carefully and that they honor their own world. Food is how Gaston connects to these things.

From what the documentary shows, Gaston does not spend his time making rice and beans, but he does have a vision that the great Peruvian cuisine comes from the indigenous people and foods and does not have to benefit only the rich. He sees it as a national, culture wide effort to benefit everyone. The politics of food are not easy.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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