There’s one film at Sundance 2024 that has a Utah tie. Here’s what it’s about.

Jenna Murray, who is Eastern Shoshone, is the subject of the short documentary ‘Winding Path.’

(Red Light Films) Jenna Murray, a University of Utah medical student and member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, is the subject of "Winding Path," a documentary short film that will debut at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

In under 10 minutes, the short documentary “Winding Path” covers generations and spans the life of a University of Utah medical student.

The full title of the film — premiering Saturday in the Documentary Short Film Program of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival — is “dêtetsi vo’i oninjakan Winding Path.” Jenna Murray, an M.D. and Ph.D. student who is from the Eastern Shoshone tribe and is the documentary’s subject, said it translates more directly as “multiple turns and then a less-traveled road.”

In the film, directors Ross Kauffman and Alexandra Lazarowich (who is Cree) tell Murray’s personal story, which highlights the health disparities faced by Indigenous populations.

Murray grew up in Las Vegas, to an Indigenous father and a non-Indigenous mother, and spent her summers with her extended family on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation, making memories with everyone — particularly her grandfather.

The movie begins with a flash of nostalgia, with Murray riding a horse, before the audience hears her reading from her medical school application — speaking about how as a young child, she tried to “relay the magic” of the reservation to people in Vegas.

Murray’s grandfather, she told The Salt Lake Tribune, “was a cowboy. … He loved being outside and working on the land, and he had such a deep connection to the land and to animals. … He wasn’t really a man with many words, but I always felt heard and seen with him.”

(Red Light Films) Jenna Murray, a University of Utah medical student and member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, is the subject of "Winding Path," a documentary short film that will debut at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Jenna is photographed with her grandfather.

In the film, Murray recalls one time when she helped her grandfather stitch up a horse. He didn’t have formal medical training, but she said she was in awe watching him.

“My grandfather was one of the first people to put the idea of being a doctor in my head,” she said. Murray, from a young age, had been interested in the human body, she said.

As she got older, she said she thought about becoming a doctor “because, on both sides of my family, there’s a lot of health disparities that were really apparent to me even as a kid. … My family suffered from a lot of diseases — like addiction and mental health issues and heart problems — but a lot of my friends didn’t.”

Something else that Murray — who describes herself as an “urban Indian” because she grew up in a city and not on a reservation — noticed: The abundance of clinics and hospitals in Vegas, when “there was barely any where the rest of my family lives,” she said.

Now that she’s older, and a medical student, Murray said that disparity was spurred by underlying social factors.

“At the epicenter of settler colonialism, our people suffered from a lot of mental and physical stress,” Murray said — and that stress has led to things like mental illness, depression, anxiety and PTSD. “That kind of stems from generational trauma of being in a genocide, watching your ancestors, having your lands taken from you,” she said.

Such trauma, she said, also has led to substance use disorders, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease and heart failure.

“We were colonized. You couldn’t rely on like our traditional ways of being, so your diet completely changed,” she said. “When Native people got put on a reservation system, that was the first time we were introduced to things like wheat, flour, sugar, alcohol, oils — things that aren’t indigenous to our lands.”

Indigenous people often lack access to health care, she said — and because of it, “people just die of preventable causes much more than folks that have access to hospitals and clinics and physicians.”

(Red Light Films) A still from "Winding Path," a documentary short film that will debut at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, of an entrance sign to the Wind River Indian Reservation.

Murray experienced that firsthand, when she was 16 — and her grandfather died from a minor heart attack.

Because her grandparents lived in a remote area, there was no cellphone service — so her grandmother had to run to the house to use a landline to call the EMS team. Then she had to wait for the EMS, to make sure they didn’t miss the ranch, which was off the highway. The drive back to town was 25 minutes, and it was unclear whether the hospital in town was properly staffed and equipped, Murray said.

“My grandpa didn’t get EMS for 40 to 45 minutes,” Murray said. “My grandma was trained to perform CPR that whole time. By the time they got him to the hospital, he was brain-dead.”

A heart attack like her grandfather had, Murray said, is preventable — if EMS teams arrive quickly and get the patient to the hospital in time. “If he had lived in town, and was able to get to a hospital, he would’ve been fine,” she said.

In the film, Murray said that “it’s almost like you have to choose between having that access and having good healthcare and remaining on your tribal lands.”

Murray had her own struggles through college and into her early 20s: Addiction, and mental health problems. She said she also felt guilt at not spending enough time on the reservation when her grandfather was still alive.

Noting the Indigenous tradition of oral storytelling, Murray said, “there’s a saying that, for Native people, every time an elder dies, a library burns.”

“There’s so much I wish I could go back and ask my grandpa and talk to him about,” Murray said, “I think that’s really what was really hard for me.”

While she was working to get sober, through the Indian Health Service, Murray connected with a Native therapist who was also in recovery. He encouraged her to go back to the reservation, spend time with her family and integrate Indigenous cultural healing practices into her daily life.

“We talked a lot about traditional medicines — things like sweet grass and cedar — and incorporating that into prayer and meditation,” she said, adding that the therapist still prescribed her antidepressants that she needed.

“That saved my life,” she said of meeting the therapist. “Everyone’s different, but I don’t think I would have gotten sober without that experience.” As a result, she’s become passionate “about integrating traditional wellness to Western medicine,” she said.

In Utah, she said, there are more urban centers for Native people to receive care. She singled out Sacred Circle Healthcare, which has two locations in Salt Lake City, two in West Valley City and one in Ibapah in Tooele County, near the Goshute Reservation.

“As Native people, we focus on holistic health,” she said. “We have four pillars of health, emotional, mental, spiritual and physical — physical is only one-fourth of that. And if anything in those four are out of balance, then you’re not going to be healthy.”

The short film “Winding Path” is the fourth in University of Utah Health’s series “New Narratives in Health” series. Kauffman has worked on all four, and this is the first to be entered in Sundance.

(The co-directors of “Winding Path,” Kauffman and Lazarowich, each have history with the festival. Kauffman’s first movie, “Born Into Brothels,” which he co-directed with Zana Briski, won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance in 2004 — and later won an Academy Award. Lazarowich won a special jury prize in 2019 for her documentary short “Fast Horse.”)

“We started having conversations in that partnership [with Sundance] initially around this idea that scientists and artists needed to work more closely together to broadly communicate advances in knowledge,” said Joe Borgenicht, senior director of strategic communications for U. of U. Health (which is a sustaining sponsor for the festival).

“Winding Path’s” placement in the festival program, Borgenicht said, is a testament to the U.’s Native American Summer Research Internship (NARI) program, which has taught 194 Indigenous undergrads from 72 tribal nations — including Murray, who took part in 2015 and 2016.

NARI is helping bridge the discrepancy between Indigenous populations and the people who provide care, Borgenicht said, “by realizing that the people who are going to help close the gap on those health disparities are the people who have experienced them.”

Murray said, ultimately, she doesn’t want the film to be about her.

“Every Native person has at least one story similar to mine, but it also really starts to touch into like, ‘How can we actually address this like what meaningful change is occurring?” she said. “That’s how we [Natives] address these things, right? We pull from the communities that need it, because these are the folks that will go back and serve them.”