About this project
A few years ago, Kickstarter helped me raise funds to complete Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky, a feature documentary about the late Russian filmmaker. Through your generosity and support, I was able to undertake post-production, create a website, and begin promoting the work. Since then, the movie has screened at over 100 venues around the world, including the Film Society of Lincoln Center and LACMA. Thank you for making that possible!
Today, I am approaching you again as I start work on a second feature film. I hope to raise $5,000 to begin shooting a documentary about Alaska’s Yup’ik people, an indigenous population that has developed at the intersection of Russian, American, and traditional Eskimo cultures. The project is currently entitled Arctic Cross.
The funding will be used to make a production trip to the Bethel region of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in late spring. For more information about my vision for the film, please see ‘Project Description’ and ‘Creative Approach and Style’ below.
The video posted above is the result of a fact-finding trip I made to Kodiak, Alaska last August. It explores the unique and relatively unknown cultural phenomenon that sparked my curiosity in Alaska in the first place: Russian Orthodox Christianity amongst Native Alaskans. It is often forgotten that the Russian Empire colonized Alaska for over a century, and the trailer above shows that the legacy of that period is still palpable today.
I hope you enjoy the short doc, which is meant to introduce you to the subject and allude to the poetic possibilities of the proposed film. Some segments from the video might be used in Arctic Cross, but since the scouting trip led me to a different subject than I had originally expected (I shifted my focus from Russian Alaskan history to contemporary Yup’ik culture), most of the film will be shot during upcoming production trips to the Alaskan tundra.
This feature-length documentary embarks on a
voyage down the murky waters of the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers of southwestern
Alaska, to the native homeland of the Yup’ik people. It begins during the
summer months in the rough frontier town of Bethel, where I board a service
barge to observe a Yup’ik sailor as he delivers goods to villages along the
Kuskokwim River. The camera will take in a remarkable setting: the vast, empty,
treeless Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. In indigenous villages along the river,
century-old Russian Orthodox churches rise above the tundra. Yup’ik,
rather than English, is the spoken language in most of these settlements.
After days in the barge getting to know the sailor and his world, I disembark in the village of Kwethluk. This hamlet encapsulates both the wealth and strife of the local culture. The Yup’ik speak the language of their ancestors, they hunt and fish in accordance with ancient rites, they follow the religion imported by Russian missionaries centuries before. However, modern difficulties complicate their way of life. Drug and physical abuse is common. Alcoholism is epidemic. In this area in particular, one in sixty-five residents is a registered sex offender.
In Kwethluk, I follow a young orthodox priest through his daily routines, observing a hybridized religion that has come to be a major part of Yup’ik life. In this sequence, I attempt to capture the unique quality of existence in this corner of the world. What is it like to be part of this uncommon American community, hundreds of miles from the nearest McDonalds? What does a child feel growing up in Kwethluk, playing with friends in the muddy streets, exploring the endless tundra on bright arctic nights? Primarily, my focus is on discovering a psychological world that has been formed by an unparalleled mix of factors. The striking surroundings, subzero temperatures, long summer nights, endless winter darkness, adopted Russian religion, timeless Yup’ik traditions and, most recently, modern technology all combine to evoke an inner reality unlike any other.
During the winter, I will visit a family in a town on the Yukon River that lost a son to suicide years earlier. Outside, the tundra is frozen over, and the viewer is confronted with a dark hour in the history of one of America’s most exceptional societies. The suicide rate among young men in this region has reached epidemic proportions - it is ten times the national average. Will the Yup’ik spirit persevere in the face of this mysterious tragedy? What is the root of these suicides? Is it alcoholism, drug abuse, lack of opportunity, cultural dissolution, or something else? In exploring these questions, the doc will present an image of the hopes, values, and personalities of the Yup’ik people as they flourish and suffer in their environment.
Creative Approach and Style:
Arctic Cross will have no voice-over, few titles and, ideally, no sit-down interviews. Instead, long-takes will observe the characters as they go about their work, speak to one another, and interact in their environment. One portrait will flow into the next. My goal as a filmmaker will be to find the cinematic means capable of expressing the complexity, depth, and mystery of the lives portrayed. There are many ways to do this if I remain attuned to the environment. In winter, the aesthetic is dominated by long, starry nights, stunning aurora borealis, and the ubiquity of whiteness and snow. In summer, I will observe boundless panoramic grasslands, muddy rivers and, in the villages, the tattered mobile housing units characteristic of the region. My stylistic approach places paramount value on the expressive possibilities of a rhythmic, rather than concept-driven, cinematic language. However, this film will also tell a thematically intertwined and compelling story accessible to all viewers.
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