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The Independent Critic

 An Interview with Sydney Freeland 
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It was two decades ago that "Drunktown's Finest" writer/director Sydney Freeland's hometown of Gallup, New Mexico was tagged with the label "Drunktown, USA" by a national news program. The Heartland Film Festival Award-winning filmmaker was a mere elementary school student at the time, though Freeland, raised on the reservation, recalls finding it strange that journalists from all over had descended upon her town essentially pointing cameras at its local winos. With "Drunktown's Finest," first-time filmmaker Freeland strips away the exploitative nature of that weird obsession and instead humanizes with intelligence and compassion the struggles that have given way to far too common Native American stereotypes. It's rather brilliant, one could say, that instead of simply dismissing these stereotypes she creates within them a compelling story you will not forget. After a successful festival run over the past year, including a big win at Indy's Heartland Film Festival, "Drunktown's Finest" opened in New York City at the Quad Cinema this past weekend. Freeland took some time to chat with The Independent Critic about her film.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Thank you for your time. Much appreciated. I saw the film at the Heartland Film Festival and I think one of the first things that struck me about "Drunktown's Finest" is that it really did a nice job of capturing the diversity of the reservation. I think far too often there's a stereotype. Yet, you also did this without creating caricatures. Can you talk a bit about why this was a story that needed to be told? Why look at these three main characters?

SYDNEY FREELAND

Well, I grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. The project really started with the idea that I never felt like I saw the people and places I knew represented on film. That was the jumping off point but I also wanted to show how diverse and dynamic the environment is on the reservation. However, that was hard to do with one character and that led to the creation of 3 main characters. Through them, you get to see how all these diverse communities interact and intersect with each other.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

As an adult with a disability, one of my major beefs with filmmakers is how often an actor with a disability is not cast to play a character with a disability. It was refreshing to see your choice to actually cast Carmen Moore as Felixia. Was that an intentional effort on your part? What do you think that added to the film?

SYDNEY FREELAND

Yes. I knew I wanted someone who was trans to play the part. I think Carmen brought an authenticity to the role that would have been difficult to duplicate otherwise.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You've been incredibly involved with the Sundance Institute. Can you speak to the importance of the Institute for you as a filmmaker?

SYDNEY FREELAND

I can’t speak highly enough about the Sundance Institute. The way the labs work is that they try to target your comfort zone and then push you to work outside of that. By being open to that process you allow yourself to try new things, which ultimately helps you grow as a filmmaker.  

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

It seems like a lot of times I hear people complain that Sundance has become so celeb-centered. Yet, I think your film is a really wonderful example of how Sundance continues to recognize and empower original voices across diverse cultures in a myriad of ways. Having experienced Sundance involvement, why do you think it's important? What about the festival circuit in general?

SYDNEY FREELAND

The past year has been pretty crazy. I’ve been able to screen the film in places I never would have had the opportunity to visit otherwise. I think the one thing about the festival circuit is that you get a chance to interact with such a wide variety of people and hear their thoughts on the film.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

While I certainly know that Robert Redford started Sundance, I wonder how it came about that he became a producer on "Drunktown's Finest?"

SYDNEY FREELAND

I participated in the Director’s Lab in 2010. He had read the script and we had a lunch where we discussed the story and its characters. The following Spring he approached my producer and I and said he was interested in coming on board as Executive Producer. That was definitely a happy day.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

If there's a power in "Drunktown's Finest," I think that it's truly how much it does reach across a variety of cultures. I mean, even looking at your festival journey is a pretty amazing thing. I saw it at Heartland, which can be edgy but is largely known for its positive and inspiring films that celebrate the human spirit...it's played at LGBT fests, Native American fests, and a variety of others.

SYDNEY FREELAND

Yeah, Heartland was one of my favorite festival experiences. I had no idea what to expect going in, but I was skeptical because it was Indiana and was about as far from the reservation as you can get. But the audiences seemed to be really enthusiastic and engaged and I had a lot of fun.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What was it like working with a cast of for the most part inexperienced performers? I understand you had quite the limited time frame for the actual shoot. That had to be challenging.

SYDNEY FREELAND

Well, we only had 15 days to shoot and we had to ask our actors to do so much in such a short amount of time. But given the circumstances I thought our cast did a wonderful job.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Can you share a little bit about your own journey as a filmmaker? How did you get started? What made you say to yourself "I'm going to be a filmmaker?"

SYDNEY FREELAND

I originally went to college to study painting and drawing. But along the way I was exposed to other mediums like computer art, animation, photography, writing, etc… My final semester I took a class called “film” and to me it combined all those other mediums into one. After that I was like, this is what I want to do.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You've got a film that's been successful on the festival circuit, widely praised, and gotten crucial support. Do you read the reviews? It seems like no matter how successful an indie film is, there's always going to be a critic or two who will just completely bash it. Does that affect you?

SYDNEY FREELAND

Ha. I try not to but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t. I try not to read too much into reviews, doesn’t matter if they’re positive or negative.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I believe you also did a Kickstarter campaign for the film. Was that a positive experience?

SYDNEY FREELAND

Kickstarter was a tremendous amount of work and I still can’t believe we pulled it off. But there was one great side effect of doing the campaign, which was by the time it was over we had 379 people who knew about the film. This helped tremendously when we got into Sundance and started promoting the film.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What lessons do you take away from your experience so far? Of course, I know you've got the film having just opened in New York City. Where do you see the film going from here and do you have anything else on the horizon?

SYDNEY FREELAND

Yeah, don’t let anyone tell you there isn’t a market for your film. As far as what’s next, I’m currently attached to direct a feature about teenager train robbers and I’m writing another feature about time travel.

"Drunktown's Finest opened on 2/20/15 in New York City at Quad Cinema and will be opening in limited release in theaters nationwide in the coming weeks.

Interview by Richard Propes
Copyright 2015

"Drunktown's Finest"

    The Official Rating Guideline
    • A+ to A: 4 Stars                
    • A- to B+: 3.5 Stars            
    • B: 3 Stars                         
    • B- to C+: 2.5 Stars           
    • C: 2 Stars
    • C- to D+: 1.5 Stars
    • D: 1 Star
    • D-: .5 Star
    • F: Zero Stars

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