Training the visual storytellers of tomorrow

Taos Pueblo's James Lujan makes his mark at the Institute of American Indian Arts


Taos Pueblo filmmaker and playwright James Lujan has been teaching film classes at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) since 2012. Lujan is chair of the IAIA Cinematic Arts and Technology Department, where he teaches business of movies and screenwriting courses. He is also a member of the Santa Fe Film and Digital Media Commission, appointed by that city’s mayor, Javier Gonzales. The commission tries to develop ways of creating a sustainable film industry in Santa Fe. Lujan also has a development deal with Blue Sky Producers Lab for the pilot of a Native American-themed TV series, titled “The Tomahawk.”

As the Cinematic Arts and Technology Department looks toward expansion, the school has enlisted filmmaker Chris Eyre as a consultant to recruit students, make connections to Hollywood and increase awareness of the department. Although Eyre will not be teaching classes, “his passion for developing Native talent as well as his reputation as an internationally renowned and respected film director will bring a jolt of energy and excitement, and a new, widespread awareness to IAIA’s film program,” wrote Lujan in a recent press release. Other goals for the film department are to build a soundstage and create a fund to support thesis projects of graduating seniors to enable them to produce quality short films.

“The strong points of IAIA’s film program are that we emphasize storytelling as much as technical skills; we offer students access to state-of-the-art filmmaking equipment, including our digital dome; and our core and adjunct faculty are working professionals in the film industry.” Much of what Lujan spoke about regarding his teaching is storytelling and how to create a compelling story that takes the viewer on a journey. “Good stories will stand out in a crowded marketplace.”

Film students at IAIA take classes in screenwriting, documentary, sound, business, animation, special effects and film production. The goal is to develop well-rounded filmmakers. “IAIA seeks to develop Native filmmakers with equally strong technical and storytelling skills who are ready to compete for opportunities in the film industry,” Lujan stated. He added: “I tell my business of movies students that to be a filmmaker is to be constantly promoting or self-promoting, whether it’s pitching an idea for a script, pitching a script for funding, pitching one’s skills for a job, pitching a film for distribution and so on.”

When asked about what sort of audience there is for Native American-oriented media, Lujan said, “If more Native filmmakers can tell stories that revolve around relatable, empathetic protagonists where the values at stake are compelling and universal, I think they’ll find mainstream audiences will respond favorably.” Breakthrough films, such as “Pow Wow Highway” (1989) and Chris Eyre’s “Smoke Signals” (1998), reached broader audiences because they each had a unique sense of humor to them. “Humor, even when culturally specific, is universal. One of the reasons audiences go to movies is to laugh,” Lujan said.

Common themes in Native filmmaking can be identity and culture. With his own style of filmmaking, Lujan said, “I’m interested in stories with characters in search of the truth — a personal truth or a greater universal truth — or simply bent on exposing corruption, hypocrisy, secrets and lies. I think it’s important for a filmmaker to bring their personal background and experience to their film projects as a source of inspiration for meaningful storytelling.”

Who are the emerging Native filmmakers to watch for? Lujan answered this question without knowing Tempo had asked these two students in particular about their experiences at IAIA beforehand. “We have a couple of newer, emerging talents here at IAIA — Razelle Benally, who has worked with Sundance and whose short films have won numerous awards. [There’s also] Echota Killsnight, who’s also won many awards and had his short films screened at film festivals internationally. Those are two to watch.”

Benally stated, “IAIA is a school, like every other college, where success and strong foundations are built by the student themselves. Breaking into the film industry is no easy task, and I’ve never been given the impression that it was the goal of IAIA to help us do just that in particular. However, the goal of the cinematic arts department at IAIA is to help us become competent storytellers and to help us create and bring stories to life via moving images and sound. By doing this, they are helping us become competent filmmakers overall.”

Killsnight added: “I still wish to learn more about cinematography. In school, I had to collaborate with actors. I mostly worked the camera on my own for full control of the shoot, but today, I wouldn’t do that again. Filmmaking is a collaborative project. The director needs most of his [or her] attention with the actors, so having a larger crew now is great.”

Filmmaker Gabriel Mozart Steven Abeyta (son of Taos Pueblo fashion designer Patricia Michaels and Diné fine artist Tony Abeyta) provided invaluable help reaching out to these students. He gave this advice: “The most unprofessional thing you can do as a filmmaker is not adapt to the environment and situation of the project. Every production has its own protocol. Be confident in your profession and stick to your job. Most importantly, spend every second loving what you do.”

These young filmmakers are all involved in fundraising to complete their own independent film productions. They can be reached on Facebook.

The Institute of American Indian Arts is located at 8 Avan Nu Po Road in Santa Fe. Visit for information on enrollment and courses. The IAIA’s Museum of Contemporary Native Arts is in downtown Santa Fe at 108 Cathedral Place.


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