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There’s a word in Cherokee, Gadugi, which (roughly) translates to “working together.” It’s a guiding principle of the Cherokee Nation, the native community that occupies the 7,000 square-mile reservation in Northeast Oklahoma. And gadugi is the lodestone for the Cherokee Nation Film Office, America’s only indigenous film commission, which has a stand at the AFM for the first time this year.
“In one way we are just like any other film commission, we see the economic development that film and television can bring into an area and we are keen to build that industry here in Oklahoma,” says Jennifer Loren, a native Cherokee and director of Cherokee Nation Film Office and Original Content. “But we are also guided by gadugi, which means as a tribe, we are very proactive, we are are community-focused: if I’m doing well, my neighbour is doing well. If my neighbour is not doing well, I’ll find a way to help my neighbour. That’s just woven into the fabric of the Cherokee Nation. And the film industry is no different.”
That community focus is what sets Cherokee Nation apart from all those other film commissions. Visiting productions get all the benefits one would expect: stunning locations ranging from prairieland to lakes, rolling hills and small-town Americana to big-city urban developments; salary rebates of up to 25 percent on top of Oklahoma’s already generous 38 percent cash back scheme on local spend; state-of-the-art facilities, including a 27,000-sq.-ft. extended-reality virtual production studio built last year. Nardeep Khurmi’s Warner Bros. title Land of Gold, which premiered in Tribeca, was among the first productions to shoot there.
But from the start, Cherokee Nation’s broader mission has been to help ensure Native stories are told correctly, and to increase representation of indigenous talent above and below the line.
“Native Americans are represented at a rate of less than 1 percent in film and television, and that’s not OK,” says Loren. “The film office works is working every day to provide initiatives to help raise that percentage.”
Incentives like the first-ever Native American talent and crew directory, a free-to-use database listing certified Native Americans —”we’ve verified their tribal identity,” notes Loren —available for everything from background extras to leading roles, cultural advisors or speakers of language languages.
“People used to say: ‘we couldn’t find a real Indian to play the role.’ Well, now you can, and there’s no excuse,” she notes.
The Cherokee Nation’s cash rebate system, which also applies to above-the-line talent salaries, is 20 percent on every dollar spent on tribal land, a figure that jumps to 25 percent if its spent on Native-owned businesses. In March, the commission unveiled a new, first-of-its-kind incentive providing up to $1 million annually in funding for production expenses occurring within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation.
One of the first recipients of the initiative was Fancy Dance, a drama from Reservation Dogs writer Erica Tremblay, starring Billions and Reservation Dogs actor Lily Gladstone. But another, less obvious, beneficiary was the holiday film A Christmas…Present staring Candace Cameron Bure.
“It was set in Ohio but they shot the whole thing here,” says Loren. “We want to be the hub for Indigenous storytelling, but we absolutely our doors are open for all kinds of projects.”
Loren sees a new, mainstream interest in Native stories. Alongside Taika Waititi’s groundbreaking Reservation Dogs for FX, she cites Peacock’s Rutherford Falls and recent features like Cannes festival Golden Camera winner War Pony and Martin Scorcese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon for Apple TV+, which stars Gladstone alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, and also shot in Oklahoma.
“There is increase, Native representation is becoming the norm,” she notes. “I think that we have, begun to really move the bar drastically in Hollywood’s understanding of what needs to be done. I recently took a meeting with a show creator, who said he had this script set in the Cherokee Nation with Cherokee protagonists. In the old days, he said, he would have just moved forward and pitched the project on his own. But now he said, he couldn’t do that. He wanted the tribe on board, he wanted Native writers in the writers room, Native crew and for the tribe’s economy to benefit. That’s where we need to be.”
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Nov. 3 daily issue at the American Film Market.
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