George Burdeau doesn’t just make films; he makes films with a purpose. For over 40 years Burdeau has been creating films that portray Native American life from a realistic point of view. These films have improved awareness and knowledge of true Native culture.
Burdeau got his start while studying to be a painter at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was during this time he noticed a disturbing trend in Native American films.
“I became aware of a number of film companies that were filming in the Santa Fe area and how they basically portrayed Native American culture, individuals, and stories. I felt that it wasn’t consistent with the life that I knew as a Native American.” Burdeau said.
After a few months of complaining, he approached a friend about the topic and received some valuable advice.
“He said to me, the only way that’s going to change is when we start doing it ourselves. It’s about time you stop talking about it and actually get out there and start making films.”
Getting films off of the ground; however, proved to be harder than expected.
“In the beginning it was extremely difficult because there wasn’t a very strong interest in Native American culture or people at that time,” says Burdeau.
In the following years Burdeau had no choice but to deviate from his passion.
“I found myself doing other types of films, like sex education,” Burdeau says with a chuckle.
Although he jokes about it now, at the time it was no laughing matter. Of his first five films only one of them involved Native Americans. Discouraged and frustrated, Burdeau quit the film industry and returned to school.
It wasn’t until some time later that Burdeau was given his first opportunity to make a difference. Burdeau heard about a project in Washington entitled “The Real People,” a television series a local school district and some active Native Americans were working on. Burdeau saw this as something he wanted to be a part of, and eventually helped direct and produce the series.
“I think the success of that series actually surprised PBS, and began to open a few doors for us in terms of funding and support for many of our ideas,” says Burdeau.
It was not long after the completion of the series that Burdeau met Frank Blythe at a conference in Wisconsin. Blythe, a man with similar feelings regarding native films, talked with Burdeau about forming an organization. Partially thanks to the success of “The Real People,” the two were given a small grant of 150,000. With Blythe as the director, the two founded what would eventually become Vision Maker Media.
The organization began as a small library of native films, most of which were not even made by native people. Although this seemed insignificant at the time, Vision Maker Media has grown into an enormously successful program that funds four to six hours of new content every year.
However, for Burdeau the amount of content is not what matters. The important thing is the message that a film delivers to the American public.
“I have a responsibility,” says Burdeau, “By having this tool and this camera, to be respectful to the stories that I will be telling.”
In his works to this day Burdeau remains focused on the importance of accurate native history and cultural legacy. In an era where most films are anything but realistic, it is a message many see as insignificant. However, it is one of grave importance for indigenous people. Burdeau quotes a Hopi tribesman who may have captured the realism of film best:
“Anything you put into the hearts and minds of human beings is real.” A message Burdeau hopes will not be forgotten.
Written by Zach Oliva.
Interviews conducted and edited by Zach Oliva.