Ekbeh, the short nonfiction film Mariah Eli Hernandez-Fitch ’23 made for her senior thesis, has been chosen for the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
First conceived as a documentary about her grandparents’ homemade gumbo, the film had a mind of its own, says Hernandez-Fitch, a member of the Houma tribe in Louisiana.
The alum had planned to tell the story using English and Louisiana French, her grandparents’ first language. But an internship last spring with the Houma Language Project inspired her to include words and phrases from the Indigenous language, which the nonprofit works to restore.
Houma “has kind of been replaced with French for the longest time. I had never met anyone who knew our Native language,” says Hernandez-Fitch, a graduate student in American Indian studies, with a focus in law, at UCLA. “So, I was like, I need to include this in my film.”
Making Ekbeh, which premiered last month at the New Orleans Film Festival, helped her connect “so many puzzle pieces” about Houma culture, and what it means for the culture to survive, she says.
The eight-minute film opens with a creation story read by Hernandez-Fitch’s youngest sister and documents the steps in making gumbo, interspersed with her grandmother’s recollections of growing up under segregation, the story of how her grandfather built a shrimping business from the ground up, and images of the southern Louisiana landscape.
Cooking and eating together is “how stories get passed down,” says the filmmaker, who grew up in an intergenerational household where the kitchen was the hub of daily life. It’s “how language gets rebuilt.”
Because Ekbeh “centers around the rebuilding of the language as well as creating the gumbo,” the title, which means to rebuild and create, “just clicked,” she says.
The ‘original storytellers’
Iyabo Kwayana, an assistant professor of film and media studies, says Hernandez-Fitch’s voice is an important addition to the field.
“She’s speaking from a different cultural understanding of storytelling, and that informs the choices that she makes with her storytelling,” says Kwayana, whose animated short By Water premiered at Sundance in 2023. “We need more variety that comes from the unique cultural perspective of the maker, rather than just something that is formulaic that exists in traditional Hollywood filmmaking.”
As the festival approaches—it opens on Jan. 18—Kwayana says she’s excited for Hernandez-Fitch to experience Sundance and looks forward to her future work.
Growing up, Hernandez-Fitch had a fascination with YouTube videos and a penchant for recording her family’s vacations and vlogging with friends. But she never imagined filmmaking would be anything more than a hobby until her first year at Dartmouth, when she joined students from the film department to watch the Oscars on TV.
Director Taika Waititi, the first person of Māori descent to win an Oscar, dedicated his award to young Indigenous artists, “the original storytellers.”
“It set a spark in me,” said Hernandez-Fitch, who majored in film and media studies, with a minor in Native American and Indigenous studies.
She took part in the Department of Film and Media Studies’ Domestic Study Program in Los Angeles in the winter of 2021, directed by Kwayana, and dove into film classes, taking inspiration from her professors, among them Jodie Mack, an experimental animator and professor of film and media studies.
She admires Mack’s lively, experimental approach to filmmaking, how she “blurs the lines between what’s real and what’s not, the definition of what is nonfiction,” says Hernandez-Fitch, who was a teaching assistant in Mack’s Film 1 course. “She made learning about film so exciting to me.”
A ‘creative powerhouse’
Hernandez-Fitch made Ekbeh during a two-term culminating experience thesis seminar within the Department of Film and Media Studies. She filmed, directed, and produced the movie, which won the John P. Wolfenden Award in Film and Media Studies in 2023. Nonetheless, Ekbeh “was definitely a group effort,” she says, citing weekly critique sessions with her fellow seminar students and help from advisers Mack and Jacqueline Wernimont, Distinguished Chair, Digital Humanities and Social Engagement.
Mack, who taught the second term of the seminar, says she was able to watch Hernandez-Fitch transform some footage and an idea into a beautiful piece.
“This confluence of information being delivered via voices and standard documentary-adjacent interview footage alongside more poetic treatments of the subject matter, these overhead shots of the gumbo, the silent portraits of her grandparents, and the footage outside come together so succinctly and beautifully.”
Mack says she’s always found Hernandez-Fitch to be “a creative and administrative powerhouse,” so when she heard that she would have a film at Sundance, she was thrilled but not surprised.
“It’s amazing to see us getting representation at this wonderful festival that really guarantees a healthy life for a film once you screen there,” Mack says, calling the acceptance “incredible news” for Mariah. “I’m sure she’s going to make wonderful connections and friendships that will carry her along her career.”
Hernandez-Fitch says the news really hit her last week, when she received stills of her grandparents with the Sundance logo.
“I completely broke down, just to see my grandparents and how their stories are going and reaching a bigger audience.”