In her new documentary short, “What They’ve Been Taught,” director Brit Hensel explores expressions of reciprocity in the Cherokee world, brought to life through a story told by an elder and first language speaker. It is the first film directed by a woman of the Cherokee Nation to be an official Sundance selection and was named by The Hollywood Reporter as one of the year’s best short docs. Hensel joined Amrit Singh on “LA Times Today.”

“What They’ve Been Taught” is part of the Reciprocity Project. Hensel talked about the inspiration for the film and what it was like to work with an all-Cherokee crew. 

“Getting to collaborate with people from the community is so wonderful. So that was a huge part of the inspiration. But this film is part of a larger group of films called ‘The Reciprocity Project,’ and the inspiration behind that was to help everyone share from a different community standpoint. There are seven different indigenous filmmakers from seven different communities, each making films about the topic of reciprocity. I was given that prompt of, ‘What does reciprocity mean to you and your community?’” Hensel shared. 

The film is narrated by Thomas Belt, a Cherokee elder who speaks first language. Hensel talked about the experience of working with and learning from Belt.  

“Thomas Belt is from Rocky Ford here in Oklahoma. And he’s a first language speaker and ended up teaching in our homelands in western North Carolina. He’s a linguist as well. So, when we’re talking about certain words, he’s breaking them down,” she said. “Our worldview as Cherokee people is through the lens of what the language tells us. So, to have him be there, to share that perspective with us, really steered what I was hoping to share in the film.”

Belt taught Hensel about how reciprocity is not a word, but an action and a way of living

“We are of this world. We’re not the ones who created it. We’re among many things. And so, our old stories, as Cherokee people remind us, they tell us we were the last people on Earth. We’re not that important, but our actions are. And we have a responsibility as people, if we’re going to do things in a good way, take care of other people and to pay attention to other things that are happening around us. And that’s what I wanted to show,” Hensel said. 

Watch the full interview above. 

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