“Filmmaking isn’t something people do on a Navajo reservation,” Sydney Freeland states as she recalls the moments that inspired her career path. Debuting at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the Navajo writer and director shifts perspectives on modern Native American life with her feature film, Drunktown’s Finest. The film presents three characters, each struggling with their own identity and purpose through life on a Navajo reservation.
“I was born and raised on the reservation, and I never really saw people I know represented on screen,” says Freeland. “When I was in elementary school, the ABC show ‘20/20’ came to my town with a huge TV crew and did this feature on the alcoholism in our border town, calling it Drunktown. But it only showed the drunks, not the real people. Fast forward 20 years later and I thought, ‘what if there was a way to take this idea and show it in a different light.’”
And so she did. Spending nearly six years writing and perfecting her script, Freeland felt it was time to deliver a story about the people that she knew. In the spring of 2013, Sundance approved Freeland’s script and the director even acquired the support of Sundance founder, Robert Redford, who signed on as Executive Producer.
“Six years of writing, then all of the sudden, ‘BOOM!’” recalls Freeland. Pressured to make the deadline for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, Freeland and her crew worked at lightning speed to acquire funding, shoot, and complete post-production. “I think we had 3 weeks of creative, 15 days of production, and then 6 weeks of post to get a cut in time for Sundance,” says the director. “I felt like a runner training for the Olympics, you know? Like, you train for years and then go run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds.”
Regardless of Freeland’s personal record in the 100-meter dash, the director can still say she claimed gold. Following its premier, Drunktown’s Finest has screened at dozens of film festivals, receiving positive responses from critics worldwide. Inspired by people she knew and the lives she crossed while growing up on the reservation, Freeland’s film shares three unique stories: Nizhoni, an adopted Christian girl desperately seeking to reconnect with her Navajo roots, Sick Boy, a troubled father-to-be struggling to stay out of jail, and Felixia, a promiscuous transsexual searching for the place where she fits in.
As each story unfolds, the tie that binds the three characters together is revealed. That tie being their Navajo heritage and culture. “We were very adamant – no tragic endings. That’s too easy,” states Freeland. “But we also didn’t want to be ‘happily ever after’ either. Instead, each of the characters finds balance.” Freeland goes on to explain, “The film shows a lot of the issues prevalent in the Native community, but despite what [the characters] have been through, they’re still here. With Sick Boy, he’s still an alcoholic, a cheater, a homophobic. But we still root for him in the end.”
Looking ahead, we all have reason to continue to root for director Sydney Freeland too. Riding the success of Drunktown’s Finest, Freeland is currently working on two feature projects, including a film about teenage train robbers and a sci-fi time travel story. “Just a little different from Drunktown,” she playfully points out.
That’s ok. We like different.
Read our film review of Drunktown’s Finest