Tutoring program helps American Indians get filmmaking, acting opportunities

SUSANVILLE RANCHERIA, Calif. (AP) -- Slowly typing on a laptop computer outside the tribal health center, 14-year-old Cedrick Aguilar carefully crafts the script for his movie -- the story of a son saving his father's good name.

"My teacher says I write well, but I think I could direct, too," Cedrick says, reviewing one of the acts where the father, a rich, corporate attorney has just been accused of stealing documents from his firm on the reservation.

Cedrick lives far from the glitz of show business, near this remote American Indian reservation in the Sierra Nevada about 80 miles northwest of Reno, Nev., where many never leave or even graduate high school. But Hollywood is coming to him.

Like dozens of other Indian children in California and Washington, he is learning moviemaking this summer through the American Indian Film Institute's tribal touring program.

Now in its third year, the program brings Indian directors to reservations in hopes youngsters might be inspired to futures in film or television.

"When I began college in the 1970s, there was a pressing need for attorneys, doctors, educators and social workers," said Michael Smith, a member of the Sioux tribe and founder and president of the San Francisco-based film institute. "Now that we have native people in those fields, it's important we really impress the need for our people to be represented in the media."

Smith said equally crucial is that those who conduct the workshops are American Indians.

"The native youth can say, 'Yeah, that guy looks like me or that girl looks like me and if that's what he or she's doing, I can do that, too,"' Smith said. "It's also important to our Indian filmmakers because it gives them support and opportunity to share their knowledge."

While Indians have long been in movies, critics say the films often include inaccurate and sometimes demeaning portrayals. Indian actors find few nonnative roles, and even fewer opportunities to work as directors, screenwriters and producers, Smith said.

The Oneida Indian Nation in New York has already created a production company, for example, and produced a documentary on Indian dancing that aired on NBC. While more Indian-owned production companies are in the works, some Indian actors say the road to Hollywood should start in native communities.

But some acknowledge there are a few obstacles to overcome.

Jack Kohler, a Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk actor and filmmaker, said students constantly teased him as "Injun Joe" -- he was one of only two American Indians at his San Francisco Bay area high school.

"It was through acting that I got my esteem," said Kohler, 42, who took up acting as he was about to graduate from Stanford University. "It was when I started to grow and come out of my shell."

Because he knows the transforming power of acting, he believes the touring program will succeed.

"Once they see themselves on the video, they'll think, 'Wow, I can do that,"' Kohler said. "That's what I'd like to do with the kids."

Another mentor is Ian Skorodin, a Jewish-Choctaw director based in Los Angeles with a degree from prestigious New York University film school.

Skorodin, 28, said he was a shy teenager from the Chicago suburbs until college and his film degree brought out his vivacious personality.

"In college you become a new person. And in filmmaking, as a necessity, you can't be a quiet person because you have too many decisions to make and too many people to meet," Skorodin said.

Cedrick Aguilar, a member of the Nonalaki tribe near Susanville, isn't sure yet what he wants to do when he graduates from high school in four years -- but moviemaking might be in his future.

"I would have never have thought of doing it before, but it's fun," he says. "They need more Indians to ... show that they could do stuff like act and direct and make big money -- not just living on the reservation and becoming an alcoholic."


On the Net:

American Indian Film Institute: http://www.aifisf.com


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