Behind the Camera
Charine Pilar Gonzales (San Ildefonso Pueblo) is a Tewa writer and director
She enjoys creating a wide range of artistic films including live-action narrative fiction, short documentaries, and stop motion projects. She's currently in post-production for her short narrative fiction film River Bank, a modern interpretation of Robin Hood where a young Tewa woman gives to the River and the River gives back to the Pueblo people. Gonzales is the Lead Editor for Native Lens, a crowdsourced collaboration by Rocky Mountain PBS and KSUT Tribal Radio, a 2021 Sundance Institute Indigenous Program Native Lab Artist in Residence, and a 2021 Artist in Business Leadership Fellow through First Peoples Fund. She is a recent graduate of Institute of American Indian Arts where she earned a BFA in Cinematic Arts and Technology. She resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the story behind your art-making practice? When did it begin?
I come from six generations of Pueblo pottery artists, so my family has a long history in the art world. We work with clay, so we are working with our ancestors. It’s important to let clay tell the story. So for me, [and as] a filmmaker, I feel the heartbeat of the story that I'm telling. The story takes its own form through my writing and directing. Everything has a spirit. From six generations of pottery makers to my storytelling endeavors, I make sure to honor that spirit and to share [my art] with others.
Speaking of clay, I want to know more about your short film Clay and Earth (What Ignites You?). What inspired you to create that film?
I lost my brother in 2017. He was 19 years old and an Army veteran. Like I said earlier, when we work with clay, we honor those gone before us. Clay Earth is about honoring spirits who are still with us when we work with clay. At the same time, [the film] is about reflecting on myself. Some of the footage is from before he passed away and some of it is after. It’s about the ultimate feeling of healing while recognizing those who are gone still watch over.
A central force in your filmmaking is Pueblo people. Why is that important to you?
Being Pueblo is a special experience. I grew up participating in dances and ceremonies. There’s something special about those traditions. Portraying the Pueblo experience in a respectful way on film will excite younger generations to continue upholding their traditions and beliefs. On a more personal note, I'd like more representation of Native people in the media. Historically, we haven't [been able to] control our own narratives or be the authors of our own stories. We deserve to be seen on screen.
What is some inspiration you can share with emerging Native filmmakers?
Put yourself out there. There are many opportunities for us. Take that extra step and apply for different opportunities. Because if you don't, you’ll never get those acceptances that feel great and that push you forward. Don't focus so much on rejection because rejection is part of the process. Whether that's applying for grants, fellowships, or scholarships, you have to get rejected to get accepted. And your story matters. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. If you keep at it and maintain a good heart through the process, you'll get where you need to be.
How has the Artist in Business Leadership Fellowship impacted your creativity?
First Peoples Fund made it possible for me to film my debut short film Riverbank, which is a Pueblo Robin Hood story starring Helena Pena. The film is currently in the editing stage, but we hope to have it ready for audiences by January 2022.
“The fellowship gave me the confidence to complete the project. And it's exciting because there isn't a lot of Pueblo representation in the media. Being able to make this short film for my community and for Indigenous kids is amazing. Thank you, First Peoples Fund.”
What have you learned about yourself during the filmmaking process?
[Filmmaking] helps me make sense of the world. I hope to help young Native and Indigenous kids make sense of the world around them, too. [But] the filmmaking journey is a huge healing process. I've been pushing myself to be a healthier person, mentally and physically. I need to be in a healthy state of mind to make films. And I'll tie it back to the first question. I was taught that when we work with clay, we must think good thoughts. And I translate that into filmmaking and storytelling. When I write a screenplay or a script, I maintain good thoughts and a healthy spirit, because I want those feelings to transfer over to my script and on the screen. And I want a safe place to reflect on hardship. Whether that's grief, mental illness, or physical illness, creating a healthy space to talk is important, [especially as a] female filmmaker.
What wisdom can you share for Native girls who want to be filmmakers?
Always believe in yourself. Never think of yourself as less, because your story and your voice deserve to be seen and heard on your terms. You're the only person that can share your story. And don't be discouraged by white males controlling the film world, because we're in a shifting period.
“Times are changing. It's a great time to be a Native woman filmmaker, and I believe in you.”
Charine Gonzales is one of six Native women filmmakers who are debuting short films at We the Peoples Before, a celebration of Native culture, sovereignty, history, and vitality, produced by First Peoples Fund in February 2022 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Click here to learn more about the screening and panel discussion.
Learn more about Charine Gonzales on her Instagram.