Writer and director Sydney Freeland was born and raised on a Navajo reservation in Gallup, New Mexico—dubbed "Drunktown." The disconnect between her experiences and the media's portrayal of reservation life compelled her to create last year's Sundance success, Drunktown's Finest. The narrative feature offers not one, but three harrowing interwoven tales of loss and triumph at or around a reservation in Drunktown. Felixia, a trans woman, pursues a spot in the "women of the tribe" calendar. Sick Boy confronts violence and drug abuse. Nizhoni seeks out her past, well after being adopted by a white family. At its core, the film represents the ongoing search for identity and Freeland's desire to more honestly portray reservation life.
A Fulbright scholar with an MFA in film, Freeland workshopped the film through a series of Sundance labs before it screened to an audience. It has continued to transform since. With a run of limited-distribution screenings in New York, and the rights inequalities of the trans community gaining further attention, Drunktown's Finest has taken on new life and meaning. And with that, Freeland has begun to share insight on her own trans identity.
VICE: In the film, you use interwoven stories to portray life on a Navajo reservation. Why did you choose these three specific characters and crises?
Sydney Freeland: On a basic level I wanted to tell a story about the people and places I knew growing up. However, the reservation is also a very diverse and dynamic place. I wanted to try to tap into some of that, but it was difficult to do with one character. It was around this time that I first saw Amores Perros. That film had a big effect on me and it led to the creation of the three main characters in Drunktown. They all represent different extremes in the community, and they all interact and intersect with each other.
Felixia is a rare character in the world of cinema. Why was she chosen to represent LGBT issues on the reservation?
Well, the short answer is because I'm trans myself. I felt like I had a familiarity with the struggles that character was going through and I felt like I had a good jumping off point. In addition, I met Carmen Moore fairly early in the writing process. When I saw her for the first time I was like "That's Felixia!" From that point on I knew that character had to be in the film.
Transgender awareness is reaching a new level of media attention. You recently shared with a broader audience that you identify as trans. Did you share this with others beforehand? In what way did the film impact your want to share this with a broader community, or are they linked?
Things have reached a level I never could have imagined. I actually transitioned over ten years ago and if you would have told me back then that trans awareness would have the level of exposure it has now I would have said you were crazy. But as far as sharing with others, it was kind of tough. Obviously my family knew, but the struggle has always been how/when/if to tell people. I still don't think I've quite figured it out, but my hope is that the more that LGBT issues are discussed and publicized the less of an issue it will become.
You address the third and fourth gender belief of Navajo culture in this film. When were you first exposed to this concept?
I was born and raised on the reservation, but I didn't know about this part of the culture. When I moved to San Francisco I met a trans woman who, when finding out I was Navajo, was like "Wow, it must be like paradise for trans people." I didn't know what she was talking about at the time but that led me to find out. I guess it's kind of ironic that I had to leave the reservation to learn about my own culture.
How did you choose to draw the line between your own experiences and narrative fiction?
There are only two things in the film that I took directly from my own life. One is a story that Sick Boy tells and the other is a scene involving a meth head and a dead horse. The rest of the story is fiction.
How does this film defy the traditional perception of life on a reservation?
That's a tough question. It was never a goal to try and change anybody's perception. My goal was to be as honest as I could with the story and its characters.
It's been a year since the film premiered at Sundance. What's happened since?
From a personal standpoint, I remember going into the festival last year with this feeling like I didn't have a frame of reference for what I was going through. But so much has changed even in the past 12 months. I think the biggest events for me were seeing Laverne Cox on the cover of TIME, and watching Transparent for the first time. I found both of those experiences to be incredibly empowering.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
It may sound off given the subject matter of the film, but I hope people enjoy themselves.
Drunktown's Finest will run at NYC's QuadCinema twice daily for one week, starting February 20, 2015.
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