For as far back as he can remember, Shane McSauby grew up spending every weekend going to the movies at AMC Grand Rapids 18 with his dad.
Now, McSauby, a member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, has grown into an accomplished and promising young filmmaker who’s caught the eye of the acclaimed Los Angeles-based film organization the Sundance Institute with a planned film about his native culture.
Born and raised in Grand Rapids, McSauby wanted to be an actor as a child. But after buying a camera and shooting small films with his friends, he decided he’d rather be behind the camera. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in filmmaking from Grand Valley State University in 2015, he moved to New York, where he currently resides.
“I had just lived in Grand Rapids in the same house my entire life. I didn’t necessarily come to New York with a plan or a strong purpose, except trying to work in film, obviously,” he said.
“I moved here because I wanted something completely new and a new challenge for myself. I know there are opportunities in Grand Rapids for film, but I just didn’t see it. I know people (there) are starting to get things started.”
McSauby is returning to his hometown in upcoming months to begin prepping for his new film, “Mino Bimaadiziwin.” The film tells the story of a young Ojibwe man whose relationship with a young Ojibwe woman tears him between the comforts of city living and reconnecting with his culture. The title means “the good path” — or, as McSauby explained it, “living pure and connected with the creator and our culture, our ways of life.”
The script was good enough for Sundance to give McSauby a special grant to be part of its 2016 Native Filmmakers Lab.
“I wrote this in March 2016, and this is what I submitted to Sundance. It’s semi-autobiographical. I lived in the city my whole life, and I’m right now reconnecting with my ancestors and culture, and I think there’s a common thing with native people today, especially urban native,” he said.
“So much of our culture has been lost due to the way we’ve been treated over the last hundred years. A lot of people are finding their way back to their culture.”
McSauby got to learn more about making his film through the lab, June 12-17 in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It’s one of 24 residential labs that Sundance hosts every year to foster and discover independent artists in film, theater, new media and episodic content.
McSauby shared the experience with fellow native filmmaker Willi White of the Oglala Lakota Nation in South Dakota. The Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program has a number of supporters, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, Time Warner Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
After the lab, McSauby and White received grants to fund the production of their short films.
“Our Native Filmmakers Lab is a unique space for the next generation of indigenous filmmakers to develop their own stories, especially amid calls for greater diversity in Hollywood,” said N. Bird Runningwater, director of the Sundance Institute Native American and Indigenous Program.
“We are thrilled to support Shane and Willi on their creative journeys and look forward to ensuring that their stories reach audiences and their careers continue to develop and grow.
The two young men spent the week in the lab working with filmmakers, actors and creative advisors. McSauby said it was an incredible learning experience that gave him the chance to work with top-notch professionals.
“As far as storytelling, one thing we really emphasized was super basic … and that was the need for conflict. Really conflict within, not only overall but within each of the stories’ arcs, and arcs within the arc,” he said.
“And also knowing your characters. Not just writing down the simple story character bio, but you should really know your characters as much as you would know your best friend. If you don’t know your character, you can’t tell their story.”
McSauby is currently rewriting, as well as planning a time frame for production. Although he doesn’t have a full budget worked out yet, his plan is to shoot all of it in the Grand Rapids area using all local crew, although he does want some outside talent for the acting roles.
His goal is to shoot this fall and submit the film to the next Sundance festival in 2017.
Growing up as a native filmmaker was a “different” experience, McSauby said. He didn’t realize the importance of telling the native story until recently.
“Filmmaking friends of mine all wanted to make some Hollywood movie and go to an award show and stuff, and I was always like, ‘That’s nice for you guys, but Hollywood doesn’t like native films or native filmmakers.’ I mean, they cast Johnny Depp as Tonto in ‘The Lone Ranger,’” he said.
“What they think about natives is from Hollywood movies, as a thing of the past or a romanticized 18th-century chief on horseback. And they don’t realize we’re here today, fathers, doctors, and we’re still struggling.”