Film on Yup’ik Orthodox of Alaska in development

Photo by Dmitry Trakovsky

A young filmmaker, Dmitry Trakovsky, is working on a really exciting project: a documentary on the Orthodox Yup’ik people of Alaska. Here’s how Trakovsky describes the film on his fundraising page at Kickstarter.com:

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.

To learn more, I’d recommend reading a recent article in the Anchorage Daily News, and checking out this excellent gallery of photos taken by Trakovsky. He’s looking to raise $3,000 over the next week — a ridiculously modest sum, as far as movies go. He’s got some pretty neat incentives for donors, including an advance DVD copy of the film if you donate as little as $35. To learn more — and to make a donation — check out his Kickstarter page.

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