Last fall, Adam Piron started his new position as director of the Indigenous program at the Sundance Institute, which aims to support emerging Indigenous American filmmakers through fellowships and labs. He also guided Indigenous artists and their projects as short film programmer for the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Below Piron discusses storytelling and the importance of cultural diversity, along with some related interests.
I’m excited to be heading up Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program. In particular, I’ll be helping to steer the program’s investment in Indigenous artists making films. I hope that I’m able to support Indigenous artists in telling their own stories on their own terms.
I spent part of my youth in Asia, and Hong Kong was a very influential cultural center for me at that time. The 2019 zine咸濕 (Salty Wet) by filmmaker Tiffany Sia investigates the idea of Hong Kong as a lost city that exists primarily through Chinatown facsimiles and pop cultural perceptions. I found the zine pretty arresting because of its unwavering viewpoint on Hong Kong, which saw so much political turbulence in 2019–20. The Hong Kong that I knew growing up in the mid- 1990s and early 2000s is no more. But this zine serves as a reminder that parts of it still exist in different media, especially in films from that time.
The House Is Black (1963), the only film by Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, served as a forerunner of the Iranian New Wave. I watched it recently by chance. I don’t often describe films as “perfect,” but I think this one hits the mark. The documentary looks at life in a leper colony in Iran. Instead of seeing the colony solely as a place of pain and sadness, Farrokhzad finds beauty in relationships and the human spirit. Her film maneuvers through slices of the community members’ lives and builds to an emotional climax that shows complete control of the medium. By looking at things we usually choose to turn away from, Farrokhzad ultmately questions what it is we value.
I have been following Sky Hopinka’s creative work for some time. His latest book, Perfidia (2020), is a series of cantos that use personal and collective memory to explore colonial violence across the United States. The volume serves as an extension of Hopinka’s films, featuring such signature themes as the destabilization of colonial narratives. Hopinka touches on landscape and language, but it’s interesting to see how his writing takes the place of the sonic elements in his films, all of which employ experimental sound design incorporating language, music, and captured audio. Reading Hopinka’s thoughts is a different from—albeit just as powerful as—experiencing his films. The release of Perfidia coincides with Hopinka’s solo exhibition “Centers of Somewhere” at the Center for Curatorial Studies on view at Bard College through mid-February.
At least once a year, I revisit Bill Gunn’s 1973 film Ganja & Hess. As a vampire romance centered on loneliness, it eludes any notion of genre. The film is obviously fiction, but contains some strong documentary aspects as well. Moving back and forth between quiet interpersonal exchanges and vivid actions prompted by guilt and trauma over the deaths of the two title characters’ spouses and their desire to reconnect to the Christian church, Ganja & Hess defies a traditional sense of linear structure. It offers not a plot but, rather, a portrayal of the characters’ interactions with one another while trying to live new lives. Right now, I’m editing a new film, which has challenged me to look at Gunn’s process as more expressive than structural. Like all of Gunn’s work, Ganja & Hess was ahead of its time and is still beyond our own.
I saw the uncut 4K restoration of the 1972 documentary Nationtime at the AFI DOCS film festival last June. Directed by William Greaves, the film chronicles the historic National Black Political Convention held that year in Gary, Indiana. Many of the concerns expressed by speakers such as Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King are just as important now as they were then. As ongoing protests around the country show, the United States still has a long way to go in reckoning with its treatment of Black Americans. At the time of its release, Nationtime was toned down in the editing process because the original cut was considered too controversial to broadcast. This restored version furthers a legacy of Black activism and opens up a critical dialogue about why this nation continues to silence Black voices.
—As told to Francesca Aton