Erica Tremblay — a filmmaker from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, who is currently studying her Indigenous language on the Six Nations Reserve — is premiering a new short film at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A twelve-minute visual story, Little Chief takes a peek inside the everyday lives of two citizens on an Oklahoma reservation.
Though Tremblay has completed a variety of prior projects, Little Chief is a turning point for the blossoming storyteller’s career. In 2018, she was selected for a fellowship for the Sundance Institute’s Native Filmmakers Lab, allowing her to build a team and tell this specific and intimate story.
Little Chief‘s authenticity is felt from its opening shot, as Sharon (Certain Women‘s Lily Gladstone) goes on an early morning errand before heading to work. Her chain-smoking is noticeable, revealing some of the personal vices that get her through each day. As she drives to work at the local school, Sharon notices one of her students walking in the cold without a jacket. She pulls over, letting Bear (Julian Ballentyne) in and wrapping him up warm in a yellow hoodie. From here, the interactions between Sharon, Bear, and the world around them speak to us more than any dialogue could outwardly express.
Shea Vassar: What other projects have you completed?
Erica Tremblay: I came up through documentary. I found it hard to break through, but with documentary as long as you have a camera and a story you can make something happen. I’ve completed two documentaries and a couple shorts.
SV: How is Little Chief different from your previous projects?
ET: With Little Chief, I had the support to make what I wanted to make, because I was being told to make the film I wanted to. In filmmaking, you spend what you have — whether it’s $20,000 or $20 million — so being able to produce something with the help of the Sundance Institute allowed me to build a team, and the outcome was me getting personal and telling a very intimate story.
SV: What was the inspiration for this new project?
ET: It is essentially a love letter to my mom and the sacrifices our matriarchs make for our communities. I am in awe of educators that are helping children through a bad day. They are going through their own healing, too.
SV: As a Native filmmaker, what is your hope for the future of the Native filmmaking industry?
ET: I’ve been working with all aspects of the industry: advertising, stunts, online videos. Hollywood is cutthroat and you keep trying and trying. Other Indigenous filmmakers have encouraged me. Storytelling is such a part of Seneca culture and we’ve been left out for so long. It’s a great time to be an Indigenous filmmaker.
SV: Do you have any other upcoming projects in the works?
ET: Currently I am working on writing my first feature about a Two-Spirit Indigenous woman who takes her niece from a foster home on the way to a pow-wow. It will be a ‘road trip’ story about finding the confidence to move forward. I also just got another year of funding for a project that I’ve been working on for two years, that looks at the Alaskan Natives that are going missing. They have such a different experience than those in the other 48 states and their story needs to be told.
Little Chief premieres at the Sundance Film Festival on January 27th.