Sunday, November 22, 2009

AIFF 2009 Suzi Yoonessi on Trying To Make An Authentic Alaska Film in Washington State

I haven't counted all the films entered in the festival, but with the shorts, particularly, there are a lot.  I'm sure it will not be possible to see even half the films, even if you were attending an event from the first to last showing every day.  So I'm trying to go through what's coming and figure out what looks best, what looks most interesting, and when films are going to be showing in hopes of seeing the best of what's up here in December.  I'm also trying to share some of what I'm learning with people who read the blog.

As part of this, I've emailed some of the film makers.  I feel a bit awkward since I don't really want to ask generic, boring questions.  It's best, for me, to see the film first, and then I may have some burning questions, or I may not.

Since I had seen Dear Lemon Lima as a short when it was in the Festival two years ago, I did have some questions of director Suzi Yoonessi.  Here's what I wrote then about the short (good, but not much) and the film maker's plans to film a movie, set in Fairbanks, in Seattle.
Dear Lemon Lima, was another snippet, it seemed, from a future feature length film. Beautifully shot with good acting, it had lots of potential. Though I think the mother was a bit exaggerated. (I'm sure the writer will say 'not at all, I know her well'.) The director - I think that was her role - was there after the film to talk. She also talked about a feature to be filmed next summer that is set in Fairbanks. To her credit, she's been to Fairbanks - after writing several chapters of the screen play - but it will be filmed in Seattle (did she really say Seattle? How can you do Fairbanks in Seattle?) because, you know, it's really expensive to do it in Fairbanks. You know, I think that people in Fairbanks and Anchorage would put the whole crew up in their houses to help you keep the costs down. If those other guys could walk their horses across Alaska, you can surely shoot your film that takes place in Fairbanks, in Alaska. Imagine a movie, "Crossing Alaska with Horses" filmed in the Alps, because, you know, going to Alaska would be so expensive.

A little snide I acknowledge, but we'd also seen a film  by French film makers who had had the idea to ride horses across Alaska.  When they got here, they began to realize how ridiculous that seemed to Alaskans.  They leased the horses, but soon discovered they were going to have to walk with, not on, the horses.  But they got up to the Arctic Ocean.  And they were in Alaska and saw how great their misperceptions of Alaska were.  As Alaskans we learned about ourselves by seeing Alaska through their eyes, but only because they were actually in Alaska. 

What I didn't realize at the time was that Dear Lemon Lima was the film she had in mind.

To her credit, she emailed me after my snarky post and asked if I had suggestions for cutting costs and doing some of the filming in Fairbanks.  If it had been Anchorage, I figured I could have found housing for everyone.  I posted her request and emailed some of the Fairbanks bloggers for help. 

So, not long ago, I emailed director Suzi Yoonessi:
"A key question I do have is how much if any of the film did you get to do in
Fairbanks?  What little I saw on the website - pictures, trailers - I'm guessing
not much.  There was one shot that might have been in a Fairbanks like setting.

In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing the movie - the colors and characters of the short that was here in 2007 still are vivid in my mind.  Not an easy thing
after two years of festival films.  But I'm a little leery about the Alaska setting
and the treatment of the Native Olympics.  We'll see."
Suzi wrote back:
. . . Our lead actress is part Yup'ik and from Eagle River, so if you're interested in speaking with her further, I'd love to put you in touch!

As you know, the budget was incredibly low. I super appreciate your blog posting, but one person responded (which was also an incredibly kind gesture), but it takes a village to raise a child, and Lemon Lima is my first-born.  We were very fortunate to find an amazing Alaskan Native presence in Seattle, so the film features an Aleut dance group and all of the events were supervised by a former WEIO athlete.  We saved a small part of our budget to shoot B-roll in Fairbanks, but after the rough cut, I had to make the decision of filming in Alaska, or having a reshoot.

One of the film's final scenes is a Yup'ik Eskimo Igloo dance. We shot a dance that wasn't particularly dynamic, so when I learned that we could use our budget to reshoot the dance, it took precedence because the character's evolution and acceptance of her heritage is the most important subplot within the character-driven film. Phillip Blanchett of the Yup'ik pop band Pamyua choreographed the dance for the reshoot and worked with Savanah Wiltfong (our lead) in Anchorage to understand the significance of each movement in the dance. The dance is delightful and we were also able to include two of Pamyua's songs in the film.

It's incredibly important to me that you, the local audience and press know the measures that we took to keep the Alaskan Native elements authentic (including having WEIO ship two seal skin blankets to Seattle.) The story is an underrepresented voice and I think it's incredibly exciting that people in London, Brazil, Tunisia and Sweden have been exposed to Alaskan Native history & culture in a story that entertains and informs. The assumption that we didn't make every effort possible to maintain the integrity of the Alaskan Native elements is incredibly frustrating and untrue.  Although I wasn't able to film in Alaska, the magical exterior filming locations inspire a sense of isolation, wonder and delight.
I've met Phillip Blanchett and seen Pamyua perform on various occasions.  They are the real thing.  I understand that getting funding to make a feature film is very difficult and that bringing a crew to Alaska is very expensive.  I accept that Suzi believes that she did everything she could to be authentic. 

I urge Alaskans to enjoy the game we usually play of picking out the parts that are wrong about films set, but not filmed, in Alaska, but to try not to let any discrepancies get in the way of seeing the film she made.  But, Suzi, remember that you did choose to tell a story set in Alaska and that the way you portray Alaskans has been/will be seen "in London, Brazil, Tunisia and Sweden" as you say.  And for most of those people, it will be as close as they ever get to Alaska.  Any mistakes you've made about us is how they will perceive Alaska.

So, Alaskans, be polite.  Don't ask questions about why she didn't shoot the film in Alaska.  She would have if she had had more money.  The Alaska Film Office hadn't reopened its doors when she was filming.

Suzi, recognize that not that many people read this blog, and even if everyone did, they wouldn't listen to me anyway. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post. Good for her for involving Blanchett.
    Yoonessi says, "It's incredibly important to me that you...know the measures that we took to keep the Alaskan Native elements authentic..."
    Authentic "Alaskan Native"? How can anything unidentified be "authentic"?

    "...London, Brazil, Tunisia and Sweden have been exposed to Alaskan Native history & culture..."
    "Alaskan Native" history and culture? Which? What history? Athabascan history? Eskimo? Aleut? Tsimpsian?

    "The assumption that we didn't make every effort possible to maintain the integrity of the Alaskan Native elements is incredibly frustrating and untrue."
    "Alaskan Native" elements, again. WHAT elements? Elements of which culture?

    I am so sick of that phrase: Alaska Native. How can it be "authentic" when you don't even know what it is!
    My friends in the Lower 48 don't say: "I'm a Native American!" They say Navajo, Zuni, Lakotah, Anishanabee, etc.
    I say Eskimo. 'Cause that's what we are. That's how my grandparents identified themselves and it's good enough for me.

    If the urban Alaska Native crowd prefer to call themselves a generic term, that's up to them, but it's inaccurate and annoying.

    I was shocked to hear a cultural leader publically identify himself at an international event: "I am an Alaska Native Elder."
    First of all, he was NOT an Elder. Second, it would be culturally-appropriate ONLY for someone else to honor him by calling him that. One would NEVER refer to themselves as an Elder. Third, he's Athabascan, but he never said that.
    Then, an "Alaska Native" educator gave a speech as an expert, about the importance of cultural identification and culturally-appropriate curriculum. She mentioned with pride her "traditional Alaska Native" regalia.
    She was wearing a custom, hand-sewn kuspuk trimmed with beads, feathers and fur. It was beautiful. Someone really did a fantastic job on it.
    Except that a kuspuk is not traditional tribal dress for Kenaitze Indians. She was visibly identifying herself as an Eskimo. Except that she isn't. Her grandmother certainly did not teach her that 'traditional' sewing skill.
    The garment was a stylistic costume with a mix of very specific "elements" identifiable to particular regions of the Bering Sea coast, Pt. Hope, Barrow, etc. It was a potpourri of Eskimo, combined with Athabascan beading and dentalium. It was beautiful, but bizarre.

    Folks, can we learn the word 'INDIGENOUS'? It's good, it's accurate, it works. Replace the term "Alaska Native" above with the word "indigneous" and it's much more effective.
    Plus, it'll stop the white guys' complaints that if they were born in Alaska, they are also "native".


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.