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On the Horizon: An Interview with Filmmaker Brooke Pepion Swaney

“On the Horizon: Outspoken Women Making Documentaries” is a Skylight series of interviews with emerging filmmakers, artists, documentarians focused on collaborative, ethical storytelling with historically disenfranchised communities around the world. Read more in the series here.

I met Brooke during the inaugural Woodstock Film Festival Filmmaker’s Residency/Incubator this past Spring, where I served as a mentor to the non-fiction directors. A Masters of Fine Arts graduate of New York University, Brooke’s film, Daughter of a Lost Bird was selected for the Hot Docs and Human Rights Watch Film Festivals, among many others, and is premiering in the Hudson Valley as part of the Woodstock Film Festival’s online offerings right now and in person on Friday, October 1st where Brooke and one of the protagonists will be attending.  Brooke is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation and a descendent of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

The following is an interview I conducted with Brooke via email. See Daughter of a Lost Bird this week at the Woodstock Film Festival and for future screenings and broadcasts check here.

Pamela Yates: Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, a Native woman adopted into a white family is such a compelling, complicated person who takes us on an unexpected journey as the lead protagonist in Daughter of a Lost Bird. How did you meet her and how did your collaboration together on this film evolve?

Brooke Pepion Swaney

Brooke Pepion Swaney: Well, I actually talk a little bit about it in the film, and you can watch the first time I met her in some awkward audition footage that we filmed in my aunt’s house in Montana. Kendra and I met while casting a lead for a short film as part of my graduate coursework at NYU. The role I auditioned her for didn’t seem like the best fit, but I kept her in mind because she was such an excellent actor. I then wrote a different short film with her in mind, which later on we actually made together — “OK Breathe Auralee.” That character coincidentally shared a lot of background with Kendra. At the time I wrote the script, I had no idea that Kendra had been adopted out of her Indigenous community.

After making the fiction piece, we became friends. I’d sleep on her couch in New York when I’d come to the city. Hanging around her apartment one night, I cavalierly told her I’d help find her community (since knowing where you come from as an Indigenous person is so foundational in my experience). That piece of her identity was something that we decided to explore together, and as a documentary.

Now here we are eight years later, I’ve been witness (and in some way instigator) to her reconnection with her Lummi roots. But mainly, I feel like I’ve been a partner in her journey — and her family’s journey too. Her daughter, Sukha, is such a good measuring stick of how far we come, since we started filming with Kendra when she was 8-months pregnant with her. I think she just had a growth spurt recently, and that gangly third grader is so fun to see grow.

But back to our collaboration, Kendra is very much an equal partner in this project as a producer on the film. A lot of funders balked at that, but I feel like it’s a good thing to have her also be behind the scenes. We ended up with such a nuanced film because of our partnership. We both have a perspective on her story, and I think together we come closer to the capital T truth. At this moment, it’s especially lovely to have her helping with all of the outreach and impact. What better spokesperson than Kendra? 

Pamela: Exposing viewers to the idea that Native people not only survived genocide, but are battling an insidious process of being adopted out, separated from their families, their lineage erased, is powerful. Was that the motivation for your making this film, or was it meeting Kendra and hearing her story?

Brooke: My parents are both educators, and Indigenous. So I had an upbringing that caused me to question dominant American culture.

In my undergrad years, I was very much made aware of the assimilationist policies of the United States. I studied social psychology under Dr. Stephanie Fryberg and Dr. Hazel Markus, and learned a lot about how American culture is really based on the individual rather than the collective. A common refrain about the U.S. is that we are a land of immigrants, but in this land of immigrants, there is a pressure to conform to that individualistic American culture based mostly on Western European culture. There are so many cultures around the world that value the collective more than the individual — and oftentimes Indigenous cultures fit more in a collectivist or interdependent society rather than an individualist or independent culture. And all these collectivist cultures end up getting squeezed into the American melting pot — including of course the indigenous people of this land.

In college, when I was learning about all the assimilationist policies — relocation, the boarding schools, termination, etc — I felt very motivated to do something with this knowledge. At the time that Kendra and I met and started to get to know one another, that dismantling of Indigenous identity was certainly in the back of my mind – whether it was from moving Native people off their reservations and into cities, or taking children away from their families based on incorrect and often racist assumptions on how able Indigenous people are to raise and instill moral teachings. Statistics only say so much, but a personal story has so much more impact when people can connect emotionally. Now, I’ve realized that I can tell stories that help the American public better understand how this has an impact on our everyday lives as Indigenous people. So, if I can help provide a more rounded story of Indigenous people, that’s my goal.

Back to psychology, a lot of what I learned from Dr. Fryberg had to do with the interplay of self-esteem and identity. Her research on how Indigenous kids are negatively affected by stereotypes is a huge motivator for me in my work. Native adoptees, often, but not always, are also confronted with stereotypes which in turn directly impact self-esteem. I hope that the film can provide some tools for all the Indigenous people wishing to reconnect.

Pamela: You are now on the festival circuit, having been at Hot Docs and the Human Rights Film Festival with a full slate of upcoming festivals including the Woodstock Film Festival. What do you hope audiences will take away from Daughter of a Lost Bird? How would you like people to act in response to this beautiful, wrenching film, full of pathos?

Brooke: There’s a lot of healing for all our Indigenous people to do, and I hope that the film can be a part of that. For all the non-Natives in the audience, I hope to have offered a glimpse into some of this story.

Indigenous people have been so effectively swept under the rug for the vast majority of Americans. I hope that more people will become aware of us. To use this sometimes tired but still resonate refrain: we are still here.

Pamela: Congratulations on being selected to be part of the inaugural Woodstock Film Festival Filmmakers Residency/Incubator this past Spring. What’s the new film project that you are working on?

Brooke: Thank you!! It’s been a real joy and honor to be a part of this inaugural cohort. I’m switching gears from documentary and back into fiction. I’m writing a new dark comedy about a tribal cop, her activist cousin and some wayward white supremacists. It’s a doozy!

Featured image: Daughter of a Lost Bird protagonist and co-producer Kendra Mylnechuk Potter in conversation with her mother. Photo courtesy Brooke Pepion Swaney. 

Pamela Yates

Pamela Yates is a an award-winning filmmaker and co-founder/Creative Director of Skylight Pictures, a company dedicated to creating feature length documentary films and digital media tools that advance awareness of human rights and the quest for justice by implementing multi-year outreach campaigns designed to engage, educate and activate social change.

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