Over the weekend, the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative hosted a multidisciplinary arts festival on the campus of the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. The Rolex Arts Weekend featured two days of public talks, performances, screenings and exhibitions celebrating a culmination of the latest Rolex Arts Initiative cycle, which pairs talented artists from around the world with world-renowned artists in their chosen medium. In the last cycle of the initiative, founded in 2002, Spike Lee, Phyllida Lloyd, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Carrie Mae Weems became mentors in film, theatre, open category and visual arts respectively.
Rebecca Irvin, head of the Rolex Arts Initiative, said in a statement: “After several years of hosting the Rolex Arts Weekend in major artistic centers from Mexico City to Berlin to Cape Town, we are excited to return this year to New York, where the program was first presented to the public. Many of our mentors and protégés in this cycle have deep ties to New York City and Brooklyn.”
native American filmmaker Kyle Bell, of the Thlopthlocco tribal town in Oklahoma (part of the Muscogee Creek reservation), spent the past two years refining several short film projects with Lee, two of which were screened for guests attending the art weekend. Bell spoke to THR about how he and Lee bonded over their passion for telling culturally specific stories, the importance of Indigenous representation in film, his plans to finish his first feature film script and make a short film he developed with Lee’s mentorship .
How did you become acquainted with the Rolex mentorship program? How was your experience as a protégé in the past two years?
Rolex contacted me, I think I was nominated by other advisors. Then there was a process of different stages of interviews, and I was in the running with other filmmakers from all over the US [Rolex] took us to New York to meet Spike, who would become the new mentor for this cycle; we showed him our work, you know, what we did. And from there, Spike decided to work with me and be a mentor to me.
What was it like adapting to the pandemic during this program? How have the two of you navigated working together and staying in touch?
It all went through Zoom; originally I was going to move to New York and spend time with [Spike]. But that didn’t happen, so it felt really good to be able to see each other’s faces. We met every few weeks because we were all still working. We were just talking about what I wanted to do, brainstorming ideas and having a lot of artistic conversations about our lives and our experiences of making movies. I made a short doc [Year Zero, exec produced by Kathryn Bigelow] by the pandemic. So I was still working when we could, safe, and that only showed up recently with Tribeca, last year so that was cool.
Also, I joined the Sundance Indigenous Labs in 2019 and they funded me to make a short film. I actually made that short film just a few months before the pandemic hit, so during the onset of the pandemic I had all this free time to edit because there wasn’t much to do. I’d show it to Spike and get his feedback to see what he thought, especially since it’s my first narrative film. I’d ask him things like, “How do you deal with working with non-actors in your job?” It was definitely a learning curve for me.
What made you excited to work with Lee, and what could he share with you – from his point of view as a filmmaker – that expanded or enhanced your work?
The first time I can remember seeing Spike’s work, I had to be in high school when I saw it He has game. I was quite young at the time, but I’ve played basketball all my life. He’s clearly a huge basketball fan, so we clicked right away when I first met him in sports and movies.
For this Rolex mentorship and protégé arts initiative, he told me he wanted to work with a native native filmmaker. It was really important to him because he wanted to bring that representation and elevate people of color. What our people have had to go through over the years, with genocide and slavery, is a common theme and similarity that we have in terms of what we try to address in movies. Telling our own stories about our cultures from our perspective. That was really what really connected us in a great way.
I think Spike has his own views and vision of what he wants to see in a movie, and what I’ve drawn from him is: [the importance] to be sure of what I want to say in my movies – finding my own voice. I’m pretty new to narrative filmmaking now, I’ve only been making films for six or seven years, but he’s been doing it for four decades. I have so much to learn. I never went to film school. I just bought a camera and learned how to use it when I picked it up a few years ago, so I can definitely say that working with Spike through this Rolex mentorship has really been like film school for me.
What was the programming like last weekend? There was a whole program of events; what were you and lee talking about?
Last weekend I showed two of my films. My first short story film, it’s called ghosts, is about a young native boy who has a hard time leaving his home, his safe place… his reservation, his community. I created it to encourage indigenous youth not to be afraid to go out into the world and follow their dreams. In this movie, he goes to play college basketball and gets encouragement from his grandmother through a Muskogee Creek hymn. It’s a deeper spiritual film. I also showed a new short documentary called Lakota. It follows a young woman named Lakota Beatty who is dealing with mental health issues after losing her sister to suicide in college. They played D1 basketball together in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s more of a spiritual look into how she coped with that mentally, emotionally and spiritually, showing how she got through it connecting with and giving back to her own indigenous people. She is of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.
One thing I want to do with my filmmaking is really give the audience time to think about the deeper things; I think I tell a lot of stories from the spiritual, more emotional aspect to ask the bigger questions about life and death. What do you believe? Why are you here? Where are you going?
Spike and me [had] a conversation about our filmmaking, our cultures, our upbringing and how we can move forward with telling stories from our own perspective. One thing Spike always talks about is that he draws a lot of power from his ancestors to tell stories. And then I look at the similarities with me: I grew up with elders in my tribe when I was young, and they really helped me get to where I am in my life now. They’re all gone, but they’ve left us with our tribal language, our culture, our songs to carry on. We just use film in our own way to fight false stereotypes.
What is your relationship as a member of the Native American community with film, in terms of the historical erasure of indigenous peoples in the medium, or how certain images and tropes have been disseminated to the public?
I think the past damage done to Indigenous Indigenous peoples in film, TV and media really paved the way for cultural appropriation and false stereotypes about us – you know, we don’t all live in teepees. We are real people, we enjoy the same things as other people, we like to joke, have fun, laugh and enjoy the simple things like carrying on our traditions and our stories and hymns and songs. All those things are very important to us.
I think one of the ways to change these stories is to really take back our own stories, because anyway they were ours to tell from the beginning. I now see a lot of hope for young, emerging Indigenous artists.
As you come out of this program cycle, have you had a chance to reflect on how it has affected your art and made you explore things in ways you didn’t expect?
I think it affected me in the most positive, optimistic way because growing up, art was really never encouraged much in school. I come from a place where you just finish high school, go to college and work from 8am to 5pm for the rest of your life. It felt like a calling; that’s not what I wanted to do with my life. It took me many years to figure out what I really wanted to say and do; picking up the camera was my outlet, that’s my way of using my voice to really tell what’s going on inside me. I am so grateful and humble that I even have the chance to tell stories of where I come from, from my perspective for my people. I feel so indebted to Spike and Rolex because this just doesn’t happen where I come from.