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CMI Graduate Christina Zuni Chosen For Sundance Fellowship

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Christina Zuni, a recent CMI graduate and Pueblo native, was selected as one of three native filmmakers across the country by the Sundance Institute for their 14-month Full Circle Fellowship. We spoke to Zuni about the fellowship, the unique perspective offered by native filmmakers, and how the Creative Media Institute has equipped her with the tools to execute this unique vision.

What is the Full Circle Fellowship?

The Sundance Institute selected me to be part of the Full Circle Fellowship--a part of the Indigenous Program. In that fellowship we’re gonna be focusing on indigenous and native storytelling, which is a big part of my identity because I’m from Isleta Pueblo. We’re gonna be focusing on how to better define our characters from an indigenous point of view. As you know, indigenous people are not represented correctly, especially in Hollywood. We’re trying to change that.

We’ve been talking to a lot of directors who focus on native storytelling. Right now, we’re in a native lab, focused on writing the script and getting it to a good point. Hopefully sometime next year we’ll be going to a film festival to actually showcase our work. There are two artists in residence and three people workshopping their script. I’m sitting in on these conversations.

I’m building a network with indigenous artists who are from Hawai’i, who are from Alaska, from the Plains, and other Pueblo natives who are in filmmaking.

How did you hear about the Full Circle Fellowship?

I took a Social Impact of Film class with Ilana Lapid. She saw how passionate I was about my indigenous side, and I made a film called “Protecting Native Nations” where I focused on reservation life during the pandemic. Then I took her Portfolio Design class, and found what I wanted to do as an indigenous filmmaker. The next semester, she said “Hey, I feel like this opportunity would be cool for you to participate in.” I looked at it and said “This is exactly what I wanna do.”

The application process was fairly simple. I had to talk about what I want to do in film, my perspective as an indigenous storyteller, and what I wanted to get out of the fellowship. I submitted my films Protecting Native Nations and Bottom of the Bottle.

After that, I got an email about setting up an interview. They saw that I was really passionate about what I wanted to do, and they gave me a second call. “Do you still wanna participate in this fellowship?” They asked. I said “Yes, most definitely,” and they were like “Great, because you’re part of our selected group. This is a national competition, and only three people get selected a year. You just can’t tell anyone for a month.” And keeping it in for a month was so hard!

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What kinds of stories do you aim to tell?

I wanna tell stories that focus on indigenous problems. There are a lot of stereotypes. Indigenous stories aren’t always good, or always spiritual. [Hollywood] portrays natives as these spiritual people who are so dramatic. But they experience horror and rom-com; they experience every genre.

As a cinematographer, I see things from a different perspective, building characters through images. With my indigenous background, I focus on landscapes, water, and colors because that’s what I’m in tune with. I just did a project focusing on how this person is moving from land to land, advancing their career. The land is a character itself.

What is unique about the native lens?

Americans typically tend to focus on individuality. They do a lot of things for themselves. But through a Native American lens, you do things for your community, to bring back home, to give to your future kids. Through the indigenous lens, I wanna tell that perspective. Native people are surrounded by an entire community that supports them. They are just trying to go forth to give back everything they can.

With Bottom of the Bottle, I was focusing on an alcoholic. I try to focus on bringing attention to a whole community, not just an individual. How a lot of people experience these issues too, and it’s a commonality between them. I try to build a connection between things and make sure the audience can understand “He’s suffering through this, well I can suffer through it with him.” That’s how I see it in my projects. You gotta treat it as a whole, and not just a singular thing.

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How has the CMI helped point you in the right direction?

All my professors at CMI have been super helpful. Sherwin told me about funding for indigenous people. Ilana gave me this opportunity for Sundance. Mitch has helped me build my storytelling through cinematography. It’s getting the basics of film and before going in the world and applying it to actual filmmaking. I come from a Pueblo background, and Pueblo people aren’t really in cinema. I’m going to be taking it back to my community. Everything that CMI has given me has been very beneficial.

What’s next for you? What’s your goal?

I have a lot of end goals. I wanna work within the Union as an AC. I’ve linked up with a lot of CMI alumni, and they’ve given me so much information on getting into the industry. But through the indie route, I wanna focus on native storytelling. I wanna be a director and a cinematographer. I wanna flip flop between those two because I wanna tell my own stories, but I also wanna help other people relay their own stories through the visual image.

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