Sean and Adrian are a Two-Spirit couple determined to rewrite the rules of Native-American culture through their participation in the Sweetheart Dance. This celebratory contest is held at powwows across the country, primarily for heterosexual couples, until now. We spoke with director Ben-Alex Dupris about his film.
SWEETHEART DANCERS plays as part of the Shorts Program at AFI DOCS at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, MD on Thursday, June 20 and at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Friday, June 21. Buy tickets to the screening here.
AFI: What led you to a career in documentary filmmaking?
I was brought back to documentary filmmaking when I spent five months at the Standing Rock occupation in 2016, and it became clear that there was a need to tell stories from the perspectives of our own Indigenous people.
AFI: How did you become interested in this narrative? What was the catalyst to tell this story?
The story was brought to me by our Associate Producer, hip hop photographer Ceylon Grey. He shared the story of his cousin who was disqualified from a powwow contest for competing as part of a same-sex couple. It was immediately a story I knew should be told. Growing up in a traditional Native community teaches you that being discriminatory towards Two-Spirits is not a value rooted in our old teachings. It is a direct result of a colonial mindset held over from our years of boarding school abuse, and systematic religious oppression. These teachings were forced on us in order to take our natural resources and shame us for generations into trauma that we are only now starting to unravel.
AFI: How did you find and connect with the key figures in your story?
Sean and Adrian, the “Sweetheart Dancers,” travel the world dancing for audiences and competing in the powwow contest arena. They have a large following and fans on social media, and I was lucky enough to have met their cousin Ceylon Grey at the Sundance Film Festival. Ceylon told me about their story, and I was immediately interested in helping to tell it.
AFI: What kinds of challenges did you experience while making the film?
We weren’t sure how receptive the powwows were of our filming the story of Sean and Adrian. We weren’t even sure if we could get access to the dance floors and if the committees would appreciate what we wanted to do. Ultimately, the powwows embraced the story and even embraced their own reconsideration of the contest rules completely. Native people can reset, make changes and move forward in the best interests of their people. Culture and tradition is fluent and can change on a dime. We must challenge ourselves to make these changes now before we get too far away from the teachings of our ancestors.
AFI: What do you hope viewers learn from watching SWEETHEART DANCERS?
I hope audiences who see “Sweetheart Dancers” can embrace the idea that Native American culture is not a rigid monolith. We have diverse voices, issues and trauma. We face internal challenges, and it’s often between our “elders” and our “youth.” The world will change for the better when we can openly acknowledge that the sliding scale of history will have micro-adjustments, and the future’s best bet is to compromise with our youth. Sean and Adrian are future leaders, possible chiefs. We need to respect our youth this way and nurture them.
AFI: Why do you think it’s vital to screen your documentary in the nation’s capital?
I’m excited to screen at AFI DOCS in Washington D.C. because the city is a force in national politics. I look forward to inviting our state and tribal representatives, lobbyists and national Native boards to see “Sweetheart Dancers” and shine a light on Indigenous LGBTQIA+ issues in our communities. It is necessary for a broad awareness and changing of the times for our Native people.
AFI: Why do you think documentary films are still important today?
Documentary films are now outpacing traditional learning models with mobile phones and digital content becoming normalized in educational models worldwide. Native American education has always been limited in school systems already, and, by designing large heartfelt stories, we are able to contextualize a whole new experience. We can provide tiny slices of our daily lives and give people a better understanding of Native American people today.
Buy tickets to SWEETHEART DANCERS here.