Berlinale 2016: Director Gina Abatemarco on her Beautiful, Haunting Doc Kivalina

In the early 1900’s, the U.S. government opened schools for Inuit communities across the Alaskan Arctic. Hardly a noble act, the schools were a vehicle for forcing the settlement of tribes who had been living traditional nomadic lifestyles up until the Bureau of Indian Affairs demanded they enroll their children in those schools, thereby drastically altering these nomadic communities’ way of life. Director Gina Abatemarco’s documentary Kivalina, which opened at the Berlinale this week, dives deep into the difficulties that one of the villages faces today, balancing what remains of their traditional lifestyle with modernity, the effects of climate change, and the arrival of industry in the Arctic. The film’s titular community, members of the Inupiaq tribe, lies not on the Alaskan coast but a silt and permafrost barrier island, which due to climate change, is eroding fast. Scientific prediction says it could be underwater within ten years, and practically since the community’s settlement a century ago, there has been both tribal and governmental discussion of relocating the village. Going against the community’s wishes, however, and what would seem to be long-term common sense, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers elected to build a multimillion dollar seawall. It is against a backdrop of ubiquitous construction cranes that Abatemarco documents Kivalina’s plight, but also the community’s resilience, and most important of all, their commitment to their traditional lifestyle, even in the face of drastic change in which they’ve heretofore had little say. Elders still collect salmon berries which grow where there is no map, Inupiaq men hunt seals while pragmatically discussing how a single oil spill would destroy their home and their way of life. We spoke with Abatemarco about the community’s unmatched lifestyle, filming in such a forbidding location, and what Kivalina, and the Arctic, face next. To begin, in which season(s) were you with the Inupiaq community? We noticed it appeared cold but not bitterly so. We went to Kivalina in the summer and the fall. This was a very, very low budget passion project, so we didn’t have the funding to go as many times as we wanted, so we’d go and spend long periods on the island. The fall and summer were very interesting, because that’s the subsistence hunting period in the community. Once we understood that this wasn’t going to be a political story, because there would be no movement, with the American government — [the people of the community] weren’t going to be relocated during the time that we were shooting — we started to focus on the cultural activities. Can you explain how this began as a political film, and had to move away from that notion? The main thing to know is that I was incredibly naive. The project took seven years. When we started, I was a young filmmaker. I thought the film would end kind of like Dark Days. Let’s put it this way. [When we began] it was a post-Katrina United States. I was naive because I couldn’t imagine that the U.S. and our government would leave people that vulnerable, after we’d had such a loss and such poor management during Hurricane Katrina. So when I discovered this island that is disintegrating, is in the path of huge rainstorms, and has no way to evacuate — if there is a [big enough] storm, there’s no possibility of getting a helicopter in, and there aren’t enough boats to get people off the island, and there’s really no secure space to be — I thought it was a no-brainer that the government would do something for the community. Especially since they themselves had settled this community on this island some hundred years ago. But these communities are not treated with the respect they deserve. The seawall-building project is ubiquitous throughout the film. At some point, the U.S. government decided to build this instead of move the community, which you demonstrate was and is their preference. Is there any chance left for them to be moved? The new plan for Kivalina is that they are going to build a bridge. And the bridge is going to connect the island with the mainland, and piece by piece, they can slowly start bringing over the community. What is the problem with just bringing a bunch of boats to the island? Am I being naive? It’s an interesting question, why don’t they just have some serious evacuation boats? There are a lot of agencies that have to be involved to move the community — to build the airport, then there’s the school, whoever does medical. And then this is a community that really has no economy, so unfortunately, there’s a lot of dependence on outside forces. Speaking of money, one hardly sees a presence of it in the community. How much does money play a role in the community? I would say Kivalina is an extremely impoverished community in terms of economics. There are only a few jobs on the island. If you’re lucky, someone in your household — and a household can have several generations — has one of those jobs. If not, you may be dependent on subsidies from the government. There’s also the Alaska state dividend. In Kivalina’s case, they get subsidies from a zinc mine — well, subsidies is the wrong word. Everyone in Alaska is a shareholder [and the Kivalina community lies within the area that receives dividends from a zinc mine]. Does the community still speak their own language, in addition to English? Yes, Inupiaq. English is the main language on the island, now, but many people still speak Inupiaq, but of course there’s a trauma with language, like with many indigenous communities. The elders in that community were not encouraged to speak their native language, and they were also punished for speaking it. They do teach [children] in schools. Just getting to Kivalina seems like such a forbidding undertaking. What kind of team did you shoot with? I had an amazing cinematographer, Zoë White. That’s it. Where did you two stay? What was your interaction with the community like? We spent a lot of time getting to know the community. For all the footage in the film, there are hundreds of hours that aren’t — I think some of the best, most intimate moments. We shot a lot. We hung out a lot. I consider the people of Kivalina my friends. We spent a lot of time and getting to know people. And through getting to know people we started to understand the impact of a subsistence lifestyle, some of the struggles the community has. Given the difficulty the community faces, are they resilient in trying to continue their way of life? How is that daily life split between modernity and tradition? I’d say what makes this film so interesting is that it captures a crossroads in Arctic culture. There’s a lot of Western influence. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. And yet this is one of the only communities in the United States that still has access to their wilderness, that still relates to a natural environment in a way that is a really unmitigated relationship. And they’re very dependent on that landscape. There are still people in the community that cannot survive off Western food. And that’s the thing about Alaska, and that’s what’s so crazy now, because of climate change, because the ice is melting, it’s giving an opportunity for industry to start looking at investing in the north. These are communities that in some ways have been kind of left alone, and untouched, and their commitment to the landscape is very, very strong. I think that that’s something, and I hope this is the conversation that the film starts: we have an opportunity to respect these cultures, the culture of Kivalina and other Arctic communities, in a way that maybe the United States has not in the past. There’s an incredible wealth of knowledge here, and beauty…[for instance] the food is beautiful. I work with Slow Food to bring attention to the Arctic culture, because what they have there is extraordinary. As the community goes about their daily lives, no one seemed to be despairing — are they resigned? What do they feel? It’s an extremely close-knit community. People of Kivalina are resilient, and as much as they are struggling in that place — no running water, dealing with climate change — they love where they live. And they love each other. And it’s actually a quite positive place in many respects. They have a strong faith and a great sense of humor. [There are two churches in the town, one Episcopalian and one Quaker.] Speaking of the tight nature of the community, how often does anyone ever leave? A lot of them have never been out of Alaska, but there are several people in Kivalina who have been around the world. Kivalina is one of the most written-about locations in the United States, when you’re writing about climate change and you’re looking for a sensational story, which I admit is what also brought me there. And yet, nobody knows about it. I’ve met journalists from Japan, and people from Germany, France, Canada…the island has been flooded. They’ve gone from being almost totally isolated to the past decade, [experiencing] tons and tons of visitors. How does the community react to these visitors? Kivalina is an extraordinarily welcoming place, and I think that they want to get their story out there. They need to get their story out there. This film is screening in the U.S. in 2017. What do you hope, ideally, will come from the film’s release? My ideal hope is that as the United States starts to more seriously consider what their investment is going to be in the Arctic, that they understand these communities need to be a part of the discussion of what’s next. If the next presidential administration is going to invest in icebreakers or infrastructure in that region of the Arctic, they really need to consult, and have a valuable conversation, with the communities that call this landscape home. We should be guided by the people of Kivalina, and other communities, on how to treat the Arctic landscape with respect, and preserve it. It’s not like we have endless wilderness and nature. There’s a lot to be learned from this landscape, and there’s a lot to be learned from the people who have lived there for centuries. I hope that if people on Capitol Hill see this film, it’ll be a provocative and honest look at what life on Kivalina is like.



Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.