Though Native Americans are making greater strides in the TV and film space, filmmaker Ian Skorodin, founder of the L.A. Skins Fest — one of the country’s largest Native American film festivals — feels that they have barely scratched the surface.
Skorodin, whose Tribal affiliation is Choctaw, founded L.A. Skins Fest to create a conduit between the Native American community and the entertainment industry.
"I see it changing for the better, but until we penetrate those jobs and staffing on TV and look for work in that industry, it will always kind of be through the lens of somebody else. We want to tell the stories through our own eyes more or less," said Skorodin, who founded L.A. Skins 10 years ago.
To help with the effort, this year's festival (November 15-20) kicked off Tuesday with its inaugural Native American TV Writers Lab, a talent development program that allows Native American writers to participate in elevator pitch sessions with creative executives from film studios, TV networks and talent agencies, Skorodin explained. The film festival also includes a sketch comedy showcase, an actors audition workshop and dozens of films and shorts.
Skorodin, who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, made his directorial debut with the film “TUSHKA.” “TUSHKA,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998, went on to win the best feature at the Arizona International Film Festival and the Spirit Award at the First Nations Film Festival in Chicago. Skorodin has since expanded his interests to animation, documentary, TV and music video projects.
"We want to maintain our culture and at the same time be a part of the mainstream because that's where new opportunities can present themselves. [These opportunities could be] an example to the rest of our community on how to grow and integrate our cultural into an ever-changing mainstream society," he said.
I continued my conversation with Skorodin where we discussed L.A. Skins Fest’s future, Native Americans portrayal in Hollywood and Los Angeles’s Native American community.
Be sure to celebrate Native American Heritage Month by watching XFINITY’s film collection featuring Native American filmmakers.
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You've estimated that 200,000 to 250,000 Native Americans live in Los Angeles County. Tell me a more about the Native American community there.
IAN SKORODIN: In the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the United States created the Relocation Act which offered Native Americans to go to cities that had manufacturing jobs. They offered funding for training so they could learn to work in manufacturing. The cities that they honed in on were Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago. A lot of Native Americans left the reservations as part of the Relocation Act. Even though a lot of those manufacturing jobs don’t exist anymore, a lot of those families stayed and created their own kind of section of the Native American community here in Los Angeles. A lot of those Natives typically are a part of the social welfare apparatus that is here. We have Indian Health Services, social welfare programs for families and job training for Native Americans who are struggling with getting employment. Those Natives still stay here and are more into the powwow circuit and doing that kind of thing.
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How does this influence their involvement in the entertainment industry?
SKORODIN: Every time there’s a large movie or TV show that’s in need of Native Americans, the studios and networks will send busses across the country and bring Indians to Los Angeles or to the sets. “Last of the Mohicans” was shot in North Carolina so they basically sent busses contacting small talent agencies in rural areas that had a Native American connection. They’d be able to recruit Natives for large battle scenes like in “Dances with Wolves” and “Last of the Mohicans” where you need a lot of Native American extras. With that encouragement, a lot of Native Americans would come to Los Angeles seeking employment and so forth. There are Natives in Los Angeles who came from the Relocation Act, those who want to be a part of the entertainment industry and there are tribes who were originally from Los Angeles. Those tribes don’t have recognition from the federal government or the state but they do have nonprofit organizations that try to go after recognition from the federal and state governments. So those three components are what comprises Los Angeles’s Native community.
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L.A. Skins Fest turns 10 this year. How has your experience been showcasing this festival?
SKORODIN: It’s been great. The amount of film entries that we receive grows every year and the amount of partnerships that I’ve been able to gather. A local council member here in Hollywood is from the Wyandotte Nation in Oklahoma and he’s extremely supportive.
We have a youth program where we travel to reservations every year during the summer and teach Native American youth how to make films. We then bring them to Los Angeles where we have a special training program during the film festival where they can meet, hang out and present their films. This year we worked with more than a half dozen tribes for this youth program.
We've gotten more corporate support this year than we had before. We just want to try to maintain that growth and offer opportunities as well with our writer's lab, our director's initiatives and actor's workshops.
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Your festival has more than 40 films and shorts covering a broad range of topics affecting Native Americans including homeless youth, violent drug culture and cultural pride.
SKORODIN: We have a lot of different films that address different parts of our community. It’s very interesting to us and we want to bring that to this community here. We have a documentary that’s based in Minnesota about gangs and youth questioning authority that addresses issues a lot of our youth in Los Angeles face. It had a lot of optimism in terms of addressing those issues. There are a lot of Native Americans who are heavy into animation, and there are a lot of beautiful projects there that we like to showcase. We always like to have a program that features Native American women that reflect the female side of our community. There may be more Native American female filmmakers than men. A lot of times we get more films directed by Native women than men. So we try to feature them as much as possible.
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How do you think Hollywood portrays your community?
SKORODIN: It gets better as time goes on. A lot of people in our community want Native American TV shows, lead actors in movies and that kind of thing, which is just fine, but my thing is that the networks and studios aren’t just going to hand those things to us. We as a community have to become those writers for television, directors for film and executives for networks and studios. That’s the only way that that’s going to really happen. And that’s my main goal: have my community understand that if we want something to be a certain way, then we have to address that ourselves. If we don’t like the way Hollywood is portraying our community, then it’s up to us to integrate into that part of mainstream culture and change it. Everybody watches TV, everybody goes to the movies, so it’s not like it’s not a part of who we are. I hold my community more responsible for that rather than the corporations. The other [people of color] communities are an example of what we can do.
We have a lot of strong Native American characters on TV. I don't feel that it's getting worse. I feel that it's definitely getting better and there's definitely a desire, even from the corporate level, to have these diverse voices. They want to portray as many diverse voices and faces as much as possible. There definitely is a financial component that a lot of entertainment corporations see as being a positive thing.
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Where do you see L.A. Skins Fest in the next 10 years?
SKORODIN: What I want to do is really make it a competitive space for Native Americans to find a way to get their films distributed. I want to create a way for them to make a living off of their art form. It’s very difficult for any community to break into the entertainment industry and actually make a good living off of it. One of my goals is to have the film festival offer that to the point where they know they’re going to show their film here and there’s a strong opportunity that they’ll find distribution, or they’ll find a connection that’ll get them work based off of their film. If they want to be a writer, director or actor, this is a place for them to do that.
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