Making her first feature film at 42, Indigenous filmmaker Erica Tremblay is pissed off she hadn’t got the opportunity sooner. Despite being told ‘no’ many times, she kept going and continued on making her own short films, and eventually landed in the writer’s room of “Reservation Dogs.” 

Her feature film “Fancy Dance” centers around a missing sex worker, Tawi, and the impact it has on her daughter, Roki (Isabel Deroy-Olson), and sister, Jax (Lily Gladstone). The auntie and daughter duo set out to find Tawi, facing some of their own fears and demons along the way. The film is a fictional story about missing and murdered women, and the strong matrilineal ties that exist in Native culture. 

“Fancy Dance” got a prestigious premiere slot at the Eccles Theatre on the opening Friday night of this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film carried a lot of buzz, and is an inspiration for female filmmakers and Indigenous filmmakers alike. 

Erica Tremblay, director of Fancy Dance, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by August Baumgartner.

Can you talk about the process of creating the story for “Fancy Dance”? 

I had started a 3 year long language immersion program learning Cayuga. It’s estimated that there are less than 20 first-language speakers of the language left. I moved up to Canada and was studying the language and we were learning family words, and I learned that the word for mother is “knó:ha” and the word for auntie, your mother’s sister specifically, is “knohá:ah” which means your little mother or your other mother. And it was at that moment that a whole new relationship and understanding with my culture came to be. I was recognizing and seeing new world views in the language as opposed to English which is a very patriarchal language in the way that it’s structured. You see “man” in everything, and the opposite really is true in Cayuga where you see matrilineal lineage, you see the matriarchy shine through very brightly. In that moment I really wanted to imagine a modern day world where young people really speak the language fluently with each other and where that matrilineal kinship is really the cornerstone of the community. 

Can you talk about the popularity of Native stories right now and what made this film possible in that context? 

I’m a writer on “Reservation Dogs” and also directed an episode there. I think what some filmmakers have really been fighting to do for so many years, including Sterlin Harjo, they were just pushing so hard to get films made. And when Rez Dogs and Rutherford Falls got made, I do think we’re seeing a swell where people who write checks are recognizing that diverse storytelling is not only entertaining but it can fit within the ecosystem of filmmaking and media making, and can be successful. And that broad audiences are interested in watching these stories. So it was a selling point for me to be able to say that I was a part of Rez Dogs, and I was going to go back to Oklahoma to shoot with the Rez Dogs crew. So much in Hollywood it’s about getting people to trust that you can pull off what you’re saying you can pull off with the funds. And unfortunately you get caught in this loop where it’s like “you haven’t done this before so we can’t trust you, but you can’t do it unless you get it.” 

I feel like we’re in this swell where all this access to financing is happening and I hope it’s not temporary, but I also think we’re not going to go back. We deserve budgets, we deserve resources, we deserve access. We’ve always been here telling stories, we’ve always been filmmakers, we’ve always been screenwriters and now we’re demanding that we get paid. We’re demanding that we get equal resources. I hope that the film can be a part of that successful canon. It would mean a lot to me if this film could open up the doors of those that are coming up behind me in the same way that the other folks’ success helped me get to where I am. And hopefully we can just keep that pipeline going, for lack of a terrible Indigenous reference. 

You talk about learning your language and the importance of that to you. Was making this film another way for you to deepen your connection to your culture? 

I live on Cayuga lands in upstate New York so I very much live amongst community and in culture. We shot in and around Oklahoma and my family still lives there so I go back there a lot. It’s tough when you move away from home and you’re trying to connect culturally. I would go back home and go back for ceremony. But now that I’m living on Cayuga lands I feel that my work and the inspiration of being there, and through the language, I’m having a better understanding of my culture. I hope it’ll be a lifelong journey. I’m a lifelong language learner. My hope is just to keep connecting through these projects and this art and to share that love of culture with others. 

Could you talk about the importance of focusing this story on the auntie and niece relationship? Having their perspective, story and experience being central while their sister and mom is missing. 

I really wanted to focus on matrilineal kinship and how that is so vital to our culture and the safety of our communities. It’s how we always lived, and unfortunately colonization and genocide and the patriarchal influence has so deeply impacted our communities. And changed the way that we view ourselves! Changed the way that we view women and children, changed the way that we view men, women and two-spirit people in our communities. And so for me this is hopefully a way for us to have a conversation about those things, but also to highlight and shine a beacon of light on the beautiful women and queer folks that hold our communities together and keep us safe. 

It was always going to be a film about women and about queer folks. About how important it is to find each other and share love and share support as we traverse through this very corrupt system of government and patriarchy that we live in that’s so dangerous. It can really bring you down on a day-to-day basis living in this world. So for me it was really meant to be a love letter to women and queer folks. 

Dawn Borchardt with filmmaker Erica Tremblay at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

One of my favorite things in the film was that you included a character that’s an exotic dancer and I feel like she is a different kind of character than we usually see in films. She has a role that is helpful to people, and kind and normal. She’s not just there for appeal. Can you talk about that character and why she’s important in the story? 

I’m a former sex worker. I worked for many years in strip clubs and danced. I really wanted to showcase consensual queer sex work. Showcase this transaction that’s happening between Jax and Sapphire. How Jax is so emotionally stunted by the trauma that’s happening in her life that the only way she can achieve intimacy is through going to the strip club. But you can very much tell that they’re both in love with each other, and that if they were in a different scenario and had the emotional capacity, maybe this would be much different. 

Also, Roki’s mother who is missing is also a sex worker. I wanted to really bring a humanity to Indigenous and queer sex workers. We are worthy. We are worthy of being looked for when we go missing. We are worthy to be parents. Tawi, despite the fact that she’s a stripper at a strip club, is a very loving, supportive mother to Roki. And Roki very much misses her when she is gone. Often we see this push for what is referred to as the “model minority” and we only want to see these positive representations of these marginalized communities on screen and I wanted to push against that because I know so many sex workers, I know so many queer folks, I know so many thieves that are delightful, wonderful, supportive, vital members of our society. 

I wanted both Sapphire and Tawi to feel lived in and real. I’ve had a lot of strippers save my life and get my ass out of trouble in the past. It’s all about humanity, and media has a really powerful way of shaping our minds. There’s been so many terrible representations of sex workers. 

When we were shooting it we worked so closely with the DP (Carolina Costa). We were never voyeuristically looking at the dancers, we’re always at eye level with them. 

That was like the first thing that I noticed! I was like wow, this isn’t just a scene at a strip club for entertainment and fun to have a bookmark that gets us to the next scene. 

She’s a human, not an object, and that was really important for us from the writing all the way to the visual storytelling. 

What would you say the impact is of sharing a story like this to wider audiences? You had a premiere at the Eccles for Sundance which is crazy! That’s so amazing. But you’re not just playing this film for Native audiences. 

I just want to express the beauty and the challenges and the humanity of communities. I make my films for my communities, that is who I’m responsible to and is what I think about from the very first inkling of an idea, all the way through distribution strategies. But I understand that storytelling is a way to build bridges, it’s a way to communicate, it’s a way to share ideas and humanity. I do believe that storytelling changes the world. I’m very excited and happy that there’s been a response to this film not only from the Indigenous community. I’ve had so many people come up to me and say “I didn’t know about ICWA” or “I didn’t know about MMIR.” If this film in any way can have people googling the real life issues that are faced by Indian country and those folks can start to use their power and reach to rematriate resources that have been stolen by this country then that is I think a worthwhile goal to have. But ultimately what I really want is my communities to be able to watch this film, see their language, see themselves represented and feel empowered in their own queerness, their own Indigeneity, in their own humanity to share their own stories. To love their own families, to fight for their justice. To me, that just feels the best. 

A still from Fancy Dance by Erica Tremblay, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

You’re in your early forties, and this is your first feature film. In the context of your age, do you have some advice for emerging filmmakers? 

I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. I moved out to LA to try to be a filmmaker. I wish that I didn’t wait till I was 42 to make my first feature film. I’ve been writing, I worked on projects. I was told no! I was told “no one wants to hear from you” “no one wants to hear women-led stories” “no one wants to hear stories about Indigenous people” and “no one cares what queer people think.” I’ve been grinding. I was lucky enough to be supported by the Lynn Shelton grant (“Of A Certain Age” Grant) that’s given to first time female filmmakers that haven’t made their films yet and they’re over 40. And I’m pissed. I’m really pissed off because I had producers, I had people tell me for so long that I couldn’t do it, that I wasn’t talented. They told me “no” and to take administrative duties. And in this lifetime we only have so many years here, and I really wish that I would have had this opportunity and this access earlier. 

If I could impart any wisdom at all, it’s to just keep pushing. Everyone’s going tell you “no,” and you’re going to hear “no” so many times. But your stories are valuable, your stories are important and deserve resources and you deserve access to telling those stories. I’ll keep preaching it to everyone that we have to implore these studios and these financiers to write checks to young women who are brilliant and talented and have a perspective on life and deserve to tell those stories. And if I’m ever put in a scenario where I can help write those checks or I can help connect those women to access to help telling those stories, then I will. I wish I wasn’t so pissed that I’m 42 making my first feature. But I’m here and I’m going to make more. And I’m going to hopefully continue to expand on this dream of mine of being a filmmaker. 

Cinema Femme Sundance and Slamdance coverage is sponsored by Noisefloor Sound Solutions and the Siskel Film Center.

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