By Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer (Choctaw), Artists in Business Leadership Fellow 2015
Razelle Benally (Oglala Lakota/Dine’) is an emerging independent filmmaker in her last year of BFA studies at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Her films have shown internationally, and garnered multiple awards at the Santa Fe Indian Market and the New Mexico Film Foundation’s Student Showcase. She is an alumna of the 2012 Sundance Institute Native Filmmakers Lab and the 2015 Native Short Film Production Grant for I Am Thy Weapon.
When the sanctity of a sacred site was threatened, Razelle Benally grabbed a camera and unwittingly found her calling in life. For years, she had longed to tell stories visually. She wasn’t a talented artist like the rest of her family. But during that time of running a camera, of editing a story about the sacred site, Razelle discovered her art.
Born in eastern Oregon, she grew up and graduated in Rapid City, South Dakota. Razelle built her self-identity based on ceremonial and traditional values. This changed her perspective on life; she wanted to do more for her people.
Razelle wants to inspire youth the way she was inspired. Along with workshops in Oregon and New Mexico, she has taught on the Rolling Rez Arts mobile unit on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The students were bright and ready to learn about writing, directing, and camera work. Razelle is thankful she can mentor young people in ways she yearned for early in life herself.
Now she’s involving Native youth on a real film set. With support from her 2017 First Peoples Fund Artists in Business Leadership fellowship, she is producing a catalyzing short film, a turning point in her career. With a handpicked Native crew of trusted friends, filmmakers, and two youth from Pine Ridge as interns, they are producing Césniyé, a short narrative on the sensitive topic of trauma.
It’s a tough journey, but Razelle is committed to reclaiming Native voices in cinema. She lives for that moment of crossing into unchartered territory and recreating an old idea into something new. Her universally-themed stories represent Native people in a way non-Natives can understand.
Razelle spent much of her life believing she didn’t have artistic talent. Now, with the art of filmmaking, she tells stories to show how all people are connected through common struggles. She works hard to represent what it means to be creative, a digital storyteller, and an American Indian in the 21st century.