'Drunktown’s Finest' Director Paints a Dynamic Picture From Navajo Roots
Daniel H. Freeland stands proud as his two daughters win awards at the 39th Annual American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco; MorningStar Angeline (right) wins for Best Supporting Actress and Sydney Freeland wins Best Film for “Drunktown’s Finest.” Photo by BK Photography.
Academy of Art University alumna Sydney Freeland’s film, Drunktown’s Finest, which began as a concept while studying at the Academy, has screened at the Sundance Film Festival and is racking up the awards and positive reviews at film festivals around the world. Backed by executive producer Robert Redford, Drunktown’s Finest draws from Freeland’s upbringing in Gallup, New Mexico near the Navajo reservation, the largest American Indian reservation in the United States.
“It’s a beautiful place but it can be an ugly place,” Freeland said. “And that’s sort of what the film is about. Showing the value of it.”
The name of the film, Drunktown’s Finest, usually draws attention and questions. In the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, Gallup had high rates of alcoholism that drew media attention. The ABC series 20/20 visited Gallup for a segment and coined it “Drunktown, USA.”
“I was in grade school at the time and I thought it was weird that a film crew came into town to film all the drunks around town,” says Freeland. Twenty years later, Freeland was at the Academy studying screenwriting with Donna Laemmlen. “She basically introduced me to screenwriting. The first thing they tell you is, write what you know. Where you came from, who you are. So I started revisiting this stuff from growing up.”
Freeland thought, what if there was a way to show another side of “Drunktown”?
“If I could have been that camera crew what would I have done?” Freeland said. “I would have shown how diverse and dynamic this environment is. That’s the kernel and that’s when I started writing the script. That was really the jumping off point for the film.”
Inspired by Alejandro González Iñárritu’s, Amores Perros, in the way that there are three separate storylines with one event tying them all together, Drunktown’s Finest explores three different characters that represent the extremes in the reservation environment, the macho, the religious and the LGBT.
“My first pass had one main character but you only saw a small segment of the population,” said Freeland, who started from scratch on her original Drunktown’s Finest script when she moved to L.A. after graduating from the Academy.
While freelancing at various production jobs in L.A., Freeland would find time to write her script. Eventually she submitted a copy to Sundance Labs. Bird Runningwater from the Native American and Indigenous Labs read the 180-page script and saw its potential. He told her to pare the script down and submit to the screenwriter’s lab where she was eventually accepted.
“It’s a five-day workshop where they dissect your script and really try to help you make it better,” said Freeland, who later was accepted to the month-long director’s lab. “It was amazing.”
It was at the Sundance Director’s lab that Freeland crossed paths with Robert Redford.
“We had a lunch and talked about the script,” Freeland said. “It was really great because he knows so much about the place I grew up. So it was just this conversation about all these little towns and people and places in the Southwest.”
After the labs, Redford signed on as executive producer and though his involvement was limited, Freeland shared that he was very supportive.
“I think getting into Sundance was the biggest thing. That was fantastic,” Freeland said. “We only had 15 days to shoot the film. We had to rush to get into Sundance. We didn’t have a back up plan and we were able to get in.”
Freeland, whose sister MorningStar Angeline played one of the main characters, said the response from the American Indian community has been enthusiastic.
The film was screened at this year’s American Indian Film Festival, and on Nov. 9, Drunktown’s Finest won Best Film at the 2014 American Indian Motion Picture Awards Show. Also recognized were MorningStar Angeline, who won Best Supporting Actress and Richard Ray Whitman, who won Best Supporting Actor.
“There’s so many films that we have in our festival. This one was one that really stood out,” said AIFF Festival Manager Mytia Zavala, who is also a current student in the School of Multimedia Communications.
“People come up to us after the screening and thank us for bringing films to the Bay Area and to San Francisco,” Zavala said. “This movie was really anticipated within San Francisco. We’re just really glad and really honored to show it at the festival.”
Next year the American Indian Film Festival will celebrate it’s 40th anniversary. The festival will kick off on Nov. 1, 2015.
“We look forward to more exciting incredible films,” said Zavala, who is especially excited about Freeland’s filmmaking future. “We’re really looking forward to her future works in the festival and of the cast as well.”
For more information on Drunktown's Finest, please visit http://www.drunktownsfinest.com.