Almost an Island

Almost an Island

ALMOST AN ISLAND is a cinematic portrait of the Goodwins, an Inupiat family living above the Arctic Circle in Kotzebue, Alaska. Through observing three generations of one family over the course of four years, ALMOST AN ISLAND explores what it means to be indigenous in the dramatically changing Arctic. Traditional practices and subsistence traditions have been kept alive by people like the Goodwins, who are deeply committed to passing them along — but how long can this last? Today in the Arctic, the seasons and animals seem confused, and corporations are angling to exploit the area’s natural resources. Kotzebue also faces deep social problems, such as alcoholism and domestic abuse. It was ranked by the FBI as Alaska’s most violent city: people are four times more likely here to suffer violent crime than anywhere else in the state. How long can people preserve their land and their native traditions when faced with such profound challenges? ALMOST AN ISLAND celebrates the spirit of resolve and gratitude of a people deeply connected to their heritage.

Documentary filmmaker Jonathan VanBallenberghe first met Elmer Goodwin in 2015, when they worked together on a planetarium program for the University of Alaska. The program presented scientific and cultural aspects of the aurora borealis. Elmer’s job was to coordinate the interviews with tribal elders, who were filmed telling Inupiat tales of the northern lights. In his 70s, and in unstable health, Elmer told Jonathan that he wanted to write a book about his life, to tell his descendants who they were and where they came from. “My great-grandchildren will never know the Inupiaq way of life, except through stories.” Jonathan suggested making a film instead, and Elmer agreed. Elmer invited Jonathan to his home and family camp the following summer. Their relationship and sense of trust have deepened over the four years that Jonathan has filmed Elmer and his family, through summers of salmon fishing and winters of ice fishing and snow machine races.

Even in Alaska, most people know very little about the Inupiat people. The few images they have are mostly old cliches, such as Eskimos living in igloos. One of the goals of ALMOST AN ISLAND is to change this, to show Alaska Natives as modern, complex people with diverse identities. The film also introduces viewers to the vast and beautiful landscape of the Arctic, through a magnificently-filmed look at the seasons of Kotzebue life. While working on this film, VanBallenberghe lived with the Goodwins for months at a time. He soon crossed over from filmmaker to honorary family member, assigned such tasks as building a coffin, making traditional knives, and skinning caribou after a hunt. He also worked as a fishing partner for Elmer’s son Aya through a commercial salmon season. This involved 14-hour fishing days six days a week, an injured back, broken ribs, and little time to film. But the footage acquired through this immersive process is intimate and full of atmosphere. When we watch Aya deftly using his large needle to patch his net in a rainstorm, we feel the cold rain. We hear the soil crumble when family members dig the grave for a cousin. We taste the intensity when Elmer’s baby grandson eats raw seal meat for the first time. Footage like this comes from luck and time, and requires the dedication and patience of both the filmmaker and the people being filmed. It is a collaboration.

Traditionally, Inupiaq culture doesn’t favor direct questions. It’s an oral storytelling society, in which formal interviews are not suitable—at least, not for a film that aims to present its subjects from their own point of view. One of the biggest challenges for the director was to find a natural way to record introspective reflections from the Goodwins. In the end, he chose not to interview them at all. Instead, they speak for themselves through reading their social media posts, and narrating their intimate and vulnerable diary entries. The online descriptions of their inner lives are surprisingly personal, and help create a family portrait that is at once poetic and grounded in real life.

Since the 15th century, indigenous people have used Kotzebue as a home base to raise children and as a gateway for hunting expeditions up the river or on the sea ice. Kotzebue’s native name is Kikiktagruk, or “almost an island,” because it is practically cut off from land by the ocean and several rivers. The title of the film is also a metaphor for the people it records, as their subsistence lifestyle is in such urgent danger of being eroded by the near future.

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