A film directed by Mariah Hernandez-Fitch ’23, titled “Ekbeh,” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21 in Park City, Utah. “Ekbeh”, which translates “to build” or “to cook,” began as her senior thesis project and centers around family, food and keeping Houma culture alive. The Dartmouth sat down with Hernandez-Fitch to speak about her artistic journey, her Dartmouth experiences and her inspiration for the project.
Tell me about yourself, and about your film “Ekbeh.”
MH-F: I consider myself a student, a graduate student and filmmaker. I am interested in policy, specifically federal Indian law, and how it fits into entertainment law. As far as the film, “Ekbeh” was my senior thesis. I was interested in the ceremonies that the Houma people have. A lot of my culture has been assimilated into Americanized culture, and I was feeling a little lost about it.
As I dove deeper into investigating that, it struck me that creating gumbo and creating Louisiana foods is ceremonial and is important. Food is a place where we could tell stories — I feel like Louisiana people are so talkative and just love having any excuse to get together. And I was like, ‘I feel like this is something.’
“Ekbeh” is very personal because it’s about my grandparents teaching me how to create gumbo while also telling stories. At the same time, I was also part of an internship where we were working on revitalizing the Houma language, and it’s the very beginning of it because the Houma language really hasn’t been spoken in so long. Working with linguists who are working to revitalize our language and talking to people of our tribe about the language was really interesting, and I wanted to include that in the film.
When did you become interested in film or know that it was something you wanted to pursue?
MH-F: When I first started Dartmouth, I was a government major, but I knew from the start that if I took a film class, I was going to fall in love with it and fall into a deep hole, and I would change my major and all that — and I did.
Dartmouth film and media studies did an Oscars party, and I went to it the year that Taika Waititi won an Oscar. He talked about how it was for the Indigenous community and Indigenous kids that want to be in film. That spoke to me, so I took a film class in the spring. I just fell in love with the academia aspect of film. Film isn’t just about watching films. It affects everything around you — people, policy. I think that’s what really hit me. The connection that films are the study of what is going on in the world right now. It’s like a time capsule of the moment.
During your time at Dartmouth, were there any specific aspects of the school, programs or people that helped you along the way?
MH-F: I think Dartmouth really allows you to explore yourself. Especially at such a time when you are growing into adulthood, to really explore passions. I can’t even imagine going to a school where you wouldn’t have time to explore classes that could be interesting. If I had gone in as a government major and never taken a film class, I wouldn’t have had those connections to people who are interested in film.
As far as connections, I love how tight knit the community is. I took a lot of the same classes with the same people. Working on projects with them, I built deep connections. Being involved in their artistic endeavors and art and also just showing up for one another is really nice, and I really enjoyed that. Even after Dartmouth, I’m still in conversation with my film friends and just adore them. I always want to show them support in any way.
Was this your first film, or have there been others you created before? How did you build up to making this specific film?
MH-F: This was the first film I was very serious about. I took other classes where the project was to create a short film, but it wasn’t something I was completely taking seriously. I think it took a lot of steps to get to this position with this film. When I took FILM 48.02, “Video Art,” that was my first time getting people together, with me taking the position as a director and taking charge of possible schedules.
Then I took FILM 37, “Directing for the Camera,” where I learned even more. I was also making my thesis at that time, which was a year-long project. In the winter and spring term of your senior year, you meet with the other people who are making a thesis once a week to make sure everyone is on track. It was at this time that I learned I needed to be serious about how to direct — how to put all of these elements together and make a film. I worked on exploring the experimental, the narrative and the documentary-style of filmmaking, which helped me in taking steps in the direction of what I realized I wanted to do.
How did you go about entering your film into festivals or getting to the point that your film is being shown at Sundance?
MH-F: My priority was always showing the film in the New Orleans Film Festival because I really wanted my grandparents to see it on the big screen, to have my family there. I was able to do it in November, and that was completely breathtaking. This was before I found out about Sundance, and I was like “That’s it. It’s done. I did what I wanted to do.” I did submit to Sundance in the summer, mainly because I thought this was my one chance. I got a call after the New Orleans Film Festival, and I was like ‘There’s no way this is happening.’ So the intention was to enter it into festivals and see how it went.
I wanted to be in conversation with recent films by Indigenous filmmakers talking about Indigenous issues — that was part of my priority. I know that Sundance has really good connections with helping Indigenous artists, and so my intentions with film festivals was how I could grow my community of not only Indigenous filmmakers, but people that are talking about Indigenous policies and Indigenous issues.
Is there any advice you would give to students who are looking to get their own stories out there through film?
MH-F: I think the best stories that people create are the ones that are the most personal. For me, this was a personal story for my family, so I had a lot of responsibility making sure it was told right, making sure that it was told respectfully. Things that are very personal are the ones that you really take a lot of care for. Also, take yourself seriously. Creativity and talent don’t have an age. You can make something as a student and have it go far. Take it seriously now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.