Maya Rose Dittloff embraces Native American tradition en route to greater representation in film.
The alumnus’ short film “Dogwood,” which was presented at the ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in October, tells the story of a young girl named Rose homegun as she embarks on a treacherous mission to gather medicinal plants. The project will be led by an Indigenous cast and crew, which Dittloff felt was extremely important as an activist working to get Indigenous people involved in film and television, she said.
“[I wanted to]make sure I’m doing everything in my power to figure out how, as an indigenous person, I can work to indigenize filmmaking, which is a big line in everything I do, everything I write” , Dittloff said.
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Dittloff said she recognized that there are a variety of factors that prevent Aboriginal people from working in the film industry, such as the fact that many do not live in large cities. So not only did she say that she shot “Dogwood” entirely on the Blackfeet Nation’s tribal land in Montana, but she did attempted to differentiate her short film from typical depictions of indigenous communities by assembling a team of indigenous creators both in front of and behind the camera.
Also, the majority of the film’s crew consisted of Dittloff’s own family members, she said. Her mother, Annie Belcourt, said she took on a number of responsibilities while working on her daughter’s short film, including production, catering, and operation of the team’s shuttle bus. The family’s reunion in their home countries helped set the cultural basis for the film’s story, Belcourt said. For example, before the shoot, she and Dittloff harvested berries to use in an opening prayer of leadership, which they had led by a tribal elder, she said.
“It (the film) really gave me an opportunity to be more active in our ceremonial ways,” Belcourt said. “It was really meaningful for me and my whole family as I look at how we can both invest in and benefit from our language.”
Dittloff’s partner Cole McCarthy, also an alumnus, also carried out many duties as the film’s cinematographer, gaffer, assistant editor and colorist. Knowing that Dittloff’s story was closely tied to the land where the short film was shot, he approached his work with the intention of conveying Montana’s importance through his on-screen imagery, such as: with strategic lighting and color schemes, he said.
“This area of Blackfeet Nation is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been,” McCarthy said. “I really just had to focus on making sure everything was well represented and that the culture was represented.”
This cultural authenticity was particularly important to Dittloff because she grew up skeptical about how tribal peoples are portrayed in the media, she said. She said she felt that historical accounts are perceived by indigenous communities as harmful and do not properly reflect the way they perceive their environment. She added that this inspired her Incorporating elements of magical realism into their short film.
“I grew up hearing traditional stories, stories from tribal elders and even ghost stories around the campfire with my family, and that shaped the way I think about the world,” said Dittloff. “Having content that represented the world as I saw it and how I was raised to believe it worked would have been very valuable.”
The clear vision that Dittloff envisioned for Dogwood was realized through effective on-set collaboration, she said. Appreciating the comfort on set, Dittloff said, she invites all team members into the family atmosphere, regardless of whether they’ve worked together before. She said that when she was directing the cast, for example, she wanted to prioritize the safety of the actors by having thorough discussions on the script’s more sensitive issues, such as domestic violence, and closing the set when needed to reassure her.
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Eventually, Dittloff said she strives for Dogwood to be an operation that can reach large numbers of people willing to acknowledge the future of domestic filmmaking. She said she hopes the short film joins the conversation about advancing the advancement of indigenous representation in the media and wants viewers to understand the importance of indigenous people’s contributions throughout the film industry as they take on a variety of roles .
“I think that’s important as we look at the stories we tell and how they move us forward,” she said. “It’s not about the past, but it’s a bridge to the future.”