Tuesday, December 08, 2015

AIFF 2015: The Newtok Film We Are All Related Here

I mentioned this film earlier today and the lawsuit between the competing leadership groups in the village of Newtok.  Well, it's pretty clear the courts have sided with the new leadership and told the old leadership to clear the offices and make the village documents available to the new leaders.

The film didn't mention the conflict.  There was a fair number of folks (I'd guess 50-60) and lots of questions at the end.  Most were about technical issues about moving a village and which agencies are involved.  One question did get filmmaker Brian McDermott  mention something about political conflict, but since he couldn't figure out who was telling the truth, he decided to leave it out.  

I caught up with McDermott in the lobby and asked him about that decision to leave it out, and after pushing him a bit, he said he had put something in about the dispute in an earlier version and it killed the film.  One of his local advisors on this told him it didn't really matter because there were 180 villages facing this same problem and it's the bigger issue that matters.  

I guess it all depends on what your intent is as a filmmaker.  To be an advocate for a cause or to be a good journalist?  And it's reasonable to take either stand.  Personally, even as an advocate, I wouldn't want to do a film (or a blog post) that left out the proverbial elephant in the room, which would let opponents pounce on that omission.  

And to his credit, McDermott listened and acknowledged my criticism as fair.  I did suggest at least a note written at the end of the film that acknowledged the dispute, the difficulty in covering it in the film, and while it might have delayed things a bit, it wasn't the key factor that was preventing Newtok and 180 other villages from being moved.

I'd not that McDermott is from Pennsylvania, connected with someone from Newtok on Facebook and came up to make the film.  One could say that was gutsy or a little naive.   Having spent  a little time in Wales, Alaska, I think that McDermott at the very least gives non-Alaska a little sense of the living conditions and of the connection of the people to their land because of their subsistence lifestyle.  It does personalize what otherwise are rather exotic places that most people in the Lower 48 can't imagine.  
And he does have some of the characters in the lawsuits up on the screen so you can see who they are.  But this is a version of what local reporters call parachute journalism - where outsiders fly in for a few days, get their stories, and leave without really knowing the history and context of where they've been or the stories they're telling.  

And if you compare it to the time Nick Brandestini spent in Barrow to get Children of the Arctic filmed right, you can see the huge difference.  But Nick has more film credits and had a much bigger budget - enough to fly the subjects of the film to Zurich and Anchorage for the showings of the film.

People have to start somewhere, but telling a village's story is also a giant responsibility.  I think his intentions were good, I don't suspect this film will do much harm, and it may even do a little good.

I also think that the Anchorage International Film Festival needs to think long and hard about what Alaska movies it accepts.  Just because a film is about Alaska doesn't mean it should be in the festival.  Should this film have gotten in?  Probably.  Should it win any awards?  I think the omission of any mention of the local dispute is a big flaw.  It's such a huge factor of what's happening in the village, I just can't see how it could be ignored completely.  Especially since the title and some of the film content makes it all seem like 'we're one big happy family.'

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