Pathfinder: Reclaiming the Native Narrative with Winding Path
The summer of 2023 may have brought the filmmaking industry to a standstill, but for writer and director Alexandra Lazarowich (Fast Horse), another path revealed itself. Director-producer team Ross Kauffman (Born into Brothels) and Robin Honan were on the lookout for a Native storyteller to co-direct their latest short documentary, Winding Path, through the University of Utah’s “New Narratives in Health” series. On strike as a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), Lazarowich was available. After one or two Zoom calls, they knew she was the missing piece.
The plot follows Jenna Murray, an MD-PhD student at the University of Utah and a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe. Jenna spent her childhood summers at her family’s ranch on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, helping her grandfather care for horses and connecting with her heritage. Years after his death, Jenna returns to Wind River to heal and find her way again as she rediscovers her path toward a life in medicine. Now, Jenna’s story will be told at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival as part of the Documentary Short Film program.
With Winding Path, filmed on the Murray family ranch at Wind River, Lazarowich and Kauffman share Jenna’s story by letting her tell it. Jenna’s narration is supplemented with b-roll of her riding horses and gazing out at the ranch, showcasing the reservation’s stunning landscape. Photographs of a young Jenna with her grandfather, many of them filmed physically to allow for a more tactile nature, show that the crew worked closely with Jenna and her family.
“There are some details about the family’s ranch that are just more beautiful than fiction.”
The beauty of the Wind River Reservation comes through crystal-clear in Winding Path thanks to the directors’ camera work. “There are some details about the family’s ranch that are just more beautiful than fiction,” remarked Honan. One such detail regards an unusually symmetrical barn on the Murray ranch. Once a Catholic church, the structure was reclaimed by Jenna’s grandfather, floorboards and all, symbolizing a new path forward.
“Anytime we have the opportunity and the pleasure and the honor of walking into a family’s home, [it’s] kind of sacred,” says Kauffman. Lazarowich adds, “We were all so moved by the land and the lovely Murray family who welcomed us there, and ultimately all the people in the community who saw what we were doing and wanted to say hello to us.”
That welcoming energy wasn’t a given for the filming crew, however, as film productions have been refused permission in the past. “It was interesting that the Intertribal Council even said to us, ‘thank you for telling a positive story about one of our young people because most film teams approach us and we don’t say no because it’s going to be inconvenient, we say no because we don’t need another negative story,’” Honan says.
The team strives to offer a counternarrative to Native stereotypes but also reclaims Wind River for the Murrays as a place for positive stories to be told.
The negative perception of the Wind River Reservation was at the forefront of Lazarowich’s mind when she joined the project. “If you google Wind River, the thing that comes up is very specific Native stereotypes … it’s about murdered Indigenous women, it’s about drug addiction [and] it’s about poverty,” Lazarowich says. “With this film, the goal was to tell a really beautiful story and offer a different vision. This can be a counternarrative to that … because we pulled from our collective experience of going out there and saw that it was so welcoming.”
In telling Jenna’s story, the team not only strives to offer a counternarrative to Native stereotypes but also reclaims Wind River for the Murrays and their community as a place for positive stories to be told. Get tickets to see the premiere of Winding Path in the Documentary Short Film program (online or in-person) at festival.sundance.org.
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