Native American Heritage: Joanelle Romero Drives the Red Nation Film Festival

Joanelle Romero. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

If you haven’t heard of the Red Nation Film Festival, the annual two-week long Los Angeles-based celebration of American Indian and Indigenous cinema, it’s not for the lack of effort, passion or spirit stemming from its founder, director, publicist and one-woman cheerleading squad, Joanelle Romero.

She provided a selection of films to XFINITY On Demand for inclusion in our celebration of Native American Heritage month (OnDemand>Specials>Native American Hertiage>Red Nation). Many of the films are available on TV for the first time, part of XFINITY’s effort to provide more relevant cultural programming to a broader audience. “It’s exciting to get these films into a place where more people can see them,” says Romero.

Working out of her home office – “I’m in a teepee,” she jokes, adding that a move to a formal office is scheduled after the first of the new year – Romero is currently editing highlights of Red Nation’s just completed 10th anniversary.  This year, her festival received more than 100 submissions, screened 29 films, and opened with “Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian,” starring Benecio del Toro.

“This has been our biggest and most exciting year yet,” says Romero. “We’ve come a long way. But we still aren’t on prime time television. So we still have a long way to go.”

After months of preparation and weeks of overseeing the opening festivities, numerous screenings and award ceremonies, as well as festivities that preceded the festival, like a fashion show, one might expect her energy to be low.

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But no, Romero is going full tilt, juggling calls and chores as she answers questions in enthusiastic bursts.  Red Nation, she says, has always been about one thing – “putting American Indian filmmakers at the forefront of the entertainment industry.”

Romero is herself a filmmaker. Her searing documentary “American Holocaust: When It’s All Over I’ll Still Be Indian,” a 2009 exploration that compared the extermination of Jews in Nazi-controlled Germany to the killing of Indigenous people in North America, is available in with XFINITY On Demand and online in the Native American Heritage collection.

Other Red Nation-related films, both long and short, in  XFINITY On Demand’s Native American Heritage collection include “Broken Rainbows,” “Urban Rez,” “Cangleska Wakan,” “Good Wolf Voice,” and “In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman.”

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“There was a definite strategy behind these selections,” says Romero. “I picked films [for XFINITY On Demand] that would expose people to a broad range of issues and insights about the culture of American Indians and Indigenous People.”

Growing up in Los Angeles, Romero – who explains she’s Apache and Cheyenne on her father’s side and Spanish and Jewish on her mother’s – was drawn to show business early on from watching her mother, a dancer in Elvis Presley movies and TV variety shows (Red Skelton and Carol Burnett). Romero’s stories about her childhood are punctuated with famous names, like her mother’s second husband (a trumpet player for Herb Albert’s Tijuana Brass), Dennis Hopper (“once my legal guardian”), and Elvis Presley (“I was convinced he wanted to marry me, and I was only 12 years old”).

At 18, Romero was cast in “A Girl Called Hatter Fox,” a CBS movie of the week. “They were looking all over the country for an actress to play Hatter Fox,” she says. “Then my mom’s friend, who was one of Bob Dylan’s best friends, came over. She was an agent, and she asked if I was an actress. I said yes, and she told me that I had to go up for the role.  So I borrowed our family friend John Barrymore’s pants, tore them all up and went in to the audition in borrowed clothes, my great grandpa’s poncho, no makeup, my hair all wild, and guess what? I got the part.”

More acting followed, as did a record album, and two children, a daughter, Sage, 27, now an actress, and a son, Montano Rain, 19, who is currently in school.  In 1991, two weeks after launching her own production company, Romero received a call from Michael Jackson’s people. Romero and Jackson had known each other in elementary school. The Gloved One was shooting a music video for his song “Black or White” and wanted American Indian dancers. Romero got him five, including her then-five-year-old daughter.  The association helped jumpstart her company.

In 1994, she began the “journey” of her documentary, “American Holocaust,” and she proudly tells of submitting the film for Oscar consideration after it was finally released 15 years later. Now, she plans to re-release it in Europe sometime in 2014. She also has plans to direct her first feature film.  But her primary focus is the Red Nation Film Festival, whose roots go back 18 years ago to the founding of an arts and culture nonprofit she called Red Nation Celebration. Out of that eventually grew the film festival, whose indie film vibe and multicultural theme make it hip. Yet its original mission has remained unchanged.

“It’s dedicated to breaking the barrier of racism,” she says, “by successfully replacing American Indian stereotypes with recognition, new vision, arts, culture, and economic prosperity by placing American Indian film makers at the forefront of the entertainment industry to introduce American Indian filmmakers to larger global mainstream finances while establishing relations between American Indian community and entertainment industry.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.
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