Pass the Mic Interview Series, ft. Christopher Nataanii Cegielski

By Nathan Phan

“As a native filmmaker, I love making projects that center around our people and communities. … I find these projects to be a communal experience, as I encourage collaboration with my cast and other indigenous creatives. Through this process we can find an alignment on our intentions, how we want to represent ourselves, and how we want to make ourselves heard.”

Up next for our Pass the Mic series is Christopher Nataanii Cegielski, Director, Writer, and member of the Navajo Nation. His films have received international recognition from festivals such as the Berlinale, SXSW, imagineNATIVE, and Sun Valley, and has participated in the Sundance Native Lab’s Time Warner Producers Fellowship, Film Independent’s Project Involve Program, and the AICP’s Commercial Directors Diversity Program. His commercial directing clients include ABC Networks, AriZona Iced Tea, and United Airlines, among others.

Christopher aims to tell resonating stories that highlight Indigenous communities through cinematic storytelling. In our interview with him, we asked about his start in filmmaking, his creative process, and his advice for up-and-coming filmmakers. Read the full interview below:

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Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in filmmaking?
I was always raised with a deep love for writing and films. I even wanted to be a writer until we started annotating Heart of Darkness in my college creative writing course. It dawned on me that I chose writing because I wasn’t sure making films was possible. The money, camera, lenses, crew, and the vulnerability of pouring your heart out for all to judge. However, I had passion and belief, so I enrolled in our film school. After two and a half years of long nights and making some really bad movies, I made my senior thesis, “Bloodlines.” 

“Bloodlines” had a nice little festival run. It premiered at imagineNATIVE, which got me connected with the Sundance Native Lab and even screened at the Berlin International Film Festival. This was it — if I wanted to pursue filmmaking, the time was now. So I packed up, moved to Los Angeles, and lived in a one bedroom apartment with two other friends. I interned, PA’d, AD’d, produced, and Instacarted my way to rent, while using all my remaining funds for spec commercials and passion projects. 

After about two shorts, one doc, four specs, and some help from the CDDP [Commercial Directors Diversity Program], a production company named Voyager saw my work and reached out. After our first commercial together, they asked if I wanted to join their roster and my dream came true. I started my life as a working director.  


Do you have a recent project that you are excited about?
This last summer I spent three months in Toronto filming a truly epic project. We had the honor to chronicle the life of an Indigenous leader who led his people against the United States government in their pursuit of westward expansion. We’re not allowed to talk much at the moment, but I will say it’s the biggest project I’ve ever done. In story, scope, resources, style, all of it. This is one of those projects where you can sink your teeth into the subject matter and push the material. 


What is your creative process?
My creative process and approach differs with every project. Sometimes my work is inspired by a scene that I want to write, an image I want to see or a feeling I want to capture. There have been projects that jump into my brain as fully formed ideas with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Other ideas come to me piece by piece over the course of months or sometimes years. If I’m patient enough, I find that these pieces naturally connect and unearth some story that’s been hiding within me. These stories usually center around a feeling and how to best share that emotion with other people. 


You’ve worked on many films featuring Native American communities, from your “This is Home” spot for ABC to your short film “Bloodlines.” What has your experience been like working on these projects?
As a native filmmaker, I love making projects that center around our people and communities. Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege to make shorts, docs and commercials that highlight our cultures and honor our rich diversity. Even though I’ve been credited as the director, I find these projects to be a communal experience, as I encourage collaboration with my cast and other indigenious creatives. Through this process we can find an alignment on our intentions, how we want to represent ourselves, and how we want to make ourselves heard.

These projects often come with a lot of pressure for me, but with the support of my family, friends, community and other filmmakers – these are easily the projects I’m most proud of. 


Do you have any advice for any up-and-coming filmmakers?
There have been times in my career where the going got really tough. Your friends in other fields are buying cars, houses, going on international trips, and doing this thing called life. Meanwhile, you’re low on money, low on food, scratching away on a script with rent right around the corner. In these times you begin to ask yourself the hard questions: “Do I have what it takes? Who am I kidding? Should I quit and look into something more stable?” During these dark days you need two things: belief and perseverance. 

As an aspiring filmmaker, the number one thing you need is belief in yourself. You need to believe in your vision, the stories you want to tell and the projects you want to make. Above all, you need to believe that you made the right decision in pursuing your dreams and persevere through all the obstacles that are stopping you. Sometimes people aren’t going to see your vision and the money is not always going to be there. That’s when you pull up your boot straps and will your dream into existence. 

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