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December 4, 2021

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Las Vegas film festivals shine spotlight on stories about minorities

Filmmaker Landon Dyksterhouse

Christopher DeVargas

Filmmaker Landon Dyksterhouse answers questions during a Q&A after the screening of his film “Warrior Spirit” at the Las Vegas Premiere Film Festival at Galaxy Theater, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. The film tells the story of Las Vegas Native American UFC Fighter Nicco Montano and her struggle with extreme weight loss for her sport.

Filmmaker Landon Dyksterhouse

Filmmaker Landon Dyksterhouse poses for a photo during the screening of his film Launch slideshow »

Nicco Montaño went from being a UFC champion to losing her contract with the mixed martial arts league because she couldn’t maintain her fighting weight.

Instead of being remembered for her success — she was the first Native American champion in promotion history — many fight fans are familiar with Montaño because of how she missed weight to cancel a highly anticipated match in 2018 with Valentina Shevchenko.

The documentary “Warrior Spirit” from director Landon Dyksterhouse sheds a novel light on Montaño’s battle to cut weight in the months ahead of the fight against Shevchenko.

It premiered Aug. 6 at the Las Vegas Premiere Film Festival, which is one of many film events in Las Vegas that are showcasing people of color and their stories on the screen.

The documentary starts with an ingredient key to many sports stories: inspiration. Montaño is Navajo and UFC’s first Native American champion, winning the Ultimate Fighter on the TV show’s 26th season in 2017. Her win rippled through the Navajo Nation, as the underdog with a community’s support on her shoulders, though not as viscerally through the UFC fan base.

Her attempt to cut weight involved typical methods like watching what she ate and intense training sessions. But the latter half of the documentary twists into something more calamitous, showing Montaño in the final hours of her weight cut swathed in a sauna suit to continue sweating. Viewers will see her face etched with a pain so brutal it landed her in the hospital hours later.

Because the fight was called off, Montaño said in the film that she did not receive any compensation for attending fight week, which was filled with press and other promotional events. She was also stripped of her title and UFC belt, which Dyksterhouse, and Montaño in the documentary, said is akin to how Native Americans have been treated in the United States — promises, promises, before they’re taken away.

“How does this continue to happen, this type of treatment, and why is Nicco treated differently as a champion when she missed weight for the first time?” Dyksterhouse said. “I think Nicco’s story is especially important, though, because there’s a lot of different layers to her story, being a woman, being the first Native American champion, having been supported and put on a pedestal by the UFC … and then by the end of the story, she was stripped.”

The documentary will continue screening at other film festivals, including twice this weekend at the Phoenix Film Festival, Dyksterhouse said.

Other Las Vegas filmmakers have also been paving the way for nonwhite stories to be more prominent in film. Melissa Del Rosario, a 2021 graduate of UNLV and a Filipino Spanish American film producer, said in her films she aims to both place actors of color centerstage as well as work with a diverse cast and crew.

Del Rosario produced the 2020 film “Take Out Girl,” which follows a Chinese American delivery woman who sells drugs and puts them in takeout bags as an attempt to save her family’s struggling restaurant. “Take Out Girl” was screened at 40 festivals and won 20 awards, including best director, actress and film at the 2020 Las Vegas Black Film Festival.

“I’m lucky to say that a lot of people on my team or a lot of regulars that I work with and … a lot of collaborators are people of color, but I wouldn’t say that’s the majority,” she said.

Actors of color have typically represented a smaller portion of lead characters in movies in the United States, according to Statista. In 2020, 39.7% of lead actors comprised minorities, a 12.1 percentage point increase from 2019 — the largest jump of the study.

Simultaneously, over the past few years Hollywood has witnessed several conversations surrounding the types of films honored at its award shows like the Academy Awards, or the Oscars. In 2015, a campaign called #OscarsSoWhite critiqued the lack of diversity represented at that year’s Oscars, which had nominated 20 white actors in its four major acting categories.

The sweeping movement yielded change, and starting in 2022, filmmakers striving for the Best Picture category must adhere to certain requirements to qualify. Some say the standards are not stringent and ultimately do not change much for previous Best Picture nominees and winners.

Del Rosario said the script for the next film she’s working on, “Revengence,” is nearly complete. Before this, she worked on four short films — “Onion Soup,” “Last of Us” and “BTeam” — this summer with other Las Vegas-based filmmakers. She said the film community in Las Vegas is rooted in collaboration. “The Las Vegas film community is so awesome,” she said. “It’s really cool to see everyone grow and collaborate.”

Beyond film festivals, films centering voices of color also screen at places like The Mob Museum. The documentary “Racially Charged: America’s Misdemeanor Problem” was screened Aug. 2 and followed by a Q&A session with Alexandra Natapoff, author of the book, “Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal,” that inspired the documentary; Yvette Williams, founder and chair for the Clark County Black Caucus; Leisa Moseley, Nevada state director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center; Belinda Harris, justice of the peace in 2020 for the North Las Vegas Justice Court Department 3; and Eve Hanan, co-director of the misdemeanor clinic at the UNLV Boyd School of Law.

Misdemeanor Problem Panel Discussion

The Mob Museum hosts a panel discussion following the screening of the documentary Launch slideshow »

“Racially Charged” dives into the misdemeanor system’s history and ingrained racism, which stretch back hundreds of years. The bulk of convictions in the U.S. are composed of misdemeanors, and Black individuals suffer an unequal burden compared to white people. Defendants charged with misdemeanors who were white and had no previous criminal record were 46% more likely to have their charges cleared compared with Black defendants, according to a study from Loyola Law School.

These charges, even after one carries out a sentence, have lasting consequences. Formerly incarcerated people will earn approximately half annually as socioeconomically similar workers without a criminal record. Atop this, a Black worker without a criminal record will still make less income compared with a white worker with one, according to the Clark County Black Caucus.

In the after-screening Q&A, Moseley said she was apprehended for a traffic ticket for an expired registration and spent a day in jail as a result. Listening to those with similar experiences as her will bolster the push for changes to what should or should not be considered a misdemeanor, she said.

“Without the voices of impacted people this movement wouldn’t be as strong,” Moseley said. “I have experienced the very thing that I sit on this stage and in legislative rooms and everywhere that I talk about it, I have experienced that. I have firsthand experience, and it is why I talk about it.”

Upcoming films celebrating more stories like this is Mexican Cinema Day on Aug. 14 by the Winchester Dondero Cultural Center. At 5 p.m., the center will offer a free screening of Mexican director Rodrigo Reyes’ “Lupe Bajo El Sol,” which charts the story of an immigrant farmworker named Lupe who pursues his wish to come home to Mexico before he dies.

Irma Varela, cultural program supervisor, said film lovers will appreciate Reyes’ passionate approach to his subject. Other non-film events at the center include a Day of the Dead celebration in November as well as music performances through September.

“(These showcases) create the space and the experience for different voices to express themselves,” she said. “Especially with the pandemic and everything, we need to learn to listen to each other and be more tolerant because we need each other. We need each other to keep going and to progress to make this city strong.”