Film by WMU professor profiles female Native American filmmakers

Contact: Mark Schwerin
Photo of Tracey Deer.

Media-maker Tracey Deer

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A documentary by a Western Michigan University professor, produced with the help of WMU students, puts five Native American women filmmakers on the other side of the camera—in front of it.

The documentary project has been some 10 years in the making for Dr. Jennifer Machiorlatti, a WMU professor of communication in the film, video and media studies program. It will have its local debut at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 31, in 1025 Brown Hall.

Part of a series

The 33-minute documentary is the first installment in a three-part series titled "Matriarchal Voices: Stories of Indigenous Women Filmmakers." The project has taken Machiorlatti to four Canadian provinces and 12 U.S. states. Episode one, titled "Spider Woman's Call," has been shown at several film festivals and academic conferences.

"This documentary provided opportunities for WMU graduate and undergraduate students to participate in the post-production process and helped them gain valuable experience before moving into professional employment," Machiorlatti says. "Documentary cinema has seen a significant increase in funding and programming."

The documentary introduces audiences to indigenous women filmmakers in North America. These women use film, video and multimedia to carry on storytelling traditions through contemporary media, but often operate under the radar of the mainstream film industry.

"It's a story about storytellers," Machiorlatti says. "Indigenous women have been producing cinema since the 1970s. So why don't we know more about these storytellers? Where are their films?"

Machiorlatti says the problem is that films about Native Americans attract more attention than films by Native Americans. Native media makers have had limited access to what the mainstream media industry considers a "viable" economic market, with their work labeled as too culturally specific and experimental.

'Spider Woman's Call'

Photo of Dorothy Christian.

Media-maker Dorothy Christian

"Spider Woman's Call" features Native media-makers Dorothy Christian, Tracey Deer, Helen Haig-Brown, Mona Smith, Valerie Red-Horse and Christine Welsh and gives their unique perspectives on producing and directing. Audiences glimpse the life experiences of the women, their memories growing up, some of the media they have produced and their goals as indigenous storytellers. In the process, tales of "Spider Woman" are woven into the narrative.

Storytelling has for centuries been acknowledged as a means of planting seeds for future generations, while retaining the memories of the past. Now, with the help of the documentary, the stories of a few of these Native American female storytellers is being brought to wider audiences.

"Matriarchal Voices was produced and directed by Machiorlatti and is a co-production of WMU and Wise Women Media. Episodes two and three are currently in production.

For more information, contact Machiorlatti at

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