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Filmmaker explores Native American culture in 'The Jingle Dress'

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Bill Eigen, left, works with the film crew.
Director Bill Eigen (left in the tan shirt) works with his film crew during the shooting of ''The Jingle Dress.'' Funded primarily by a grant from the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, the film was shot in and around Minneapolis.
Courtesy Bill Eigen

When Bill Eigen set out to portray Native Americans on the screen, he knew that as a white filmmaker, he was walking on thin ice.

"Really the most important thing was I wanted the Native American culture to like the film," Eigen said.

So he asked Native American friends for help.

The result was "The Jingle Dress," a new Minnesota-made film about members of a family from the White Earth Nation who move to Minneapolis to solve the mysterious death of an uncle.

The movie represents a number of firsts, including being the first feature film to be completed with funds from a tax that supports the arts. The film received $250,000 from the Legacy Arts and Cultural Heritage Production Reimbursement Program.

Eigen said that covers about four-fifths of the budget. Minnesota Public Radio receives legacy funding for its arts and culture reporting. 

"The Jingle Dress" is the result of a chance meeting Eigen had many years ago in Minneapolis with a Native American man at a stoplight.

When the man walked over, Eigen at first thought he was going to ask for something.

"But, he just looked at me, and smiled and winked his eye in the most sort of mystical charming kind of way, and wandered off," the filmmaker recalled.

The meeting sparked an idea for Eigen, who was fresh off years of traveling the world learning about other cultures.

"I thought most people have absolutely no contact or no insight into this very interesting, very old culture that's right here with us," he said. 

Eigen wrote a script about that culture, but then set it aside. He went off to make award-winning documentaries about singers and civil rights activists Pete Seeger and Harry Belafonte.

The idea for a film on Native Americans might have faded, but it sprang to life a couple of years ago, when a friend mentioned that state Legacy Fund money available for Minnesota-themed films.

"And I said 'God, I wrote a script 15 years ago that's kind of Minnesota-centric,' " he said. "I went and got it, and gave it to the (Minnesota) Film Board, and they said 'Yeah! We are in!' "    

Shooting began around Minneapolis in the summer of 2013.

S'Nya Sanchez-Hohenstein plays Rose
S'Nya Sanchez-Hohenstein plays Rose, the young girl from the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota who moves with her family to Minneapolis in the new movie ''The Jingle Dress.''
Courtesy Bill Eigen

Much of "Jingle Dress" is told through the eyes of 8-year-old Rose after her family moves to Minneapolis in search of answers about what happened to their Uncle Norton. They stay with an aunt in the Phillips neighborhood, and experience the good and the bad aspects of urban native life.

"Grandma told me the city is a stranger," says Rose, the youngest family member in the film. "But maybe we can make it a friend."

Eigen auditioned actors from all over the United States for "The Jingle Dress." He recruited local talent too, including Stacey Thunder, who describes herself as Red Lake and Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe.

Trained as a lawyer, Thunder hosts the public television show "Native Report," and is an actor. She said she has she's turned down similar scripts in the past because they were so ill-informed about native life.

"The Jingle Dress," Thunder said, was different.

"Even though it's a non-native screenwriter, his script didn't make me cringe," she said. "It didn't make me roll my eyes. I thought it's a good story and I think with really good actors and actors who really know what it's like, we can shape that into something that comes from us." 

  The Jingle Dress cast includes "Twilight" star Chaske Spencer, veteran actor Steve Reevis of the Blackfeet Nation, and complete novices like S'Nya Sanchez-Hohenstein, who plays Rose.

The cast of ''The Jingle Dress''
The cast of ''The Jingle Dress'' includes film veterans and complete novices.
Courtesy Bill Eigen

Thunder said she's never been on a set like it.

"It was really fun. It was a bunch of native people who are having a great time," she said. "Yeah, it was amazing." 

The finished movie, which toured film festivals and several reservations, is running for a week at St. Anthony Main Theatre in Minneapolis.

Minnesota Film and TV Board Executive Director Lucinda Winter says "The Jingle Dress" illuminates part of Minnesota's cultural heritage. 

"It was so well executed and so wonderfully told," she said.  

Winter also is pleased that state Legacy funds helped Eigen make the difficult move from documentaries to making a feature film.

Eigen said he's been bitten by the feature bug, but doesn't know what his next feature film will be.