Stanley Njootli Sr (right), and Stanley Grafton Njootli, Jr (left) out on the land, Yukon Territory, Canada.
In the tiny village of Old Crow, 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a father and his son are reunited after almost 25 years apart. They share a name and a bloodline, but the worlds they know and the lifestyles they lead are as different as their respective hometown climates. Stanley Njootli Sr. is a hunter, a man of the land steeped in Native traditions. Stanley Jr., who has been raised by his mother in Washington State, immerses himself in hip-hop music and video games, and is drifting deeper into drugs and alcohol. After a lifetime apart, the two meet again in the raw, quiet beauty of the Canadian Yukon.
In Old Crow, there are no strip malls, restaurants, bars, movie theaters or even roads in or out. What Old Crow does have plenty of is natural beauty, isolation and a punishing climate. As Stan Sr. says, “There are two kinds of people in Old Crow, those who want to be here and those who can’t afford to live anywhere else.” He is one of the former. After youthful experiences with urban modernity “down south,” which included his own bouts with alcohol and drugs, he returned to Old Crow. This tiny village, population 250, would enable him to live the traditional fishing and hunting life of his First Nations’ Gwitchin people, the “good life” he had known as a child. Now he’s hoping to instill these same traditions in his adult son to help give him a new direction and repair the distant relationship that has existed between the two for so many years.
As evocatively portrayed in Arctic Son, Stanley Sr. believes that connecting with the land and ways of his ancestors will give his son identity and a sense of purpose. Stan Jr. goes along, but only begrudgingly. And the father realizes his son isn’t the only new thing in Old Crow. The Internet and satellite television — and the desires they inspire in young people everywhere — increasingly challenge long-standing traditions.
Arctic Son allows the two men to tell their own stories. The father is soft-spoken and philosophical, convinced that the rigors of living close to the natural world instill self-discipline and a respect for knowledge. He makes his way by daily and seasonal rounds of work that would be crushing — and a life that would be austere — to most of us, but which leave him invigorated and at peace. Although he wasn’t there for most of his son’s upbringing, he wants to pass on the ancestral wisdom that, perhaps, saved his own life.
Despite having a flair for art, Junior is a self-described “black sheep” who would rather party than be serious about anything, even his drawing. He pretends he doesn’t care about his father’s absence, and he views going to Old Crow with an amused cynicism. Yet he also seems to want to be rescued — above all by the father he’s lacked till now.
What follows in Arctic Son depended on a remarkably candid relationship between filmmakers and subjects. The film captures a halting, moving reunion, one that includes the conflicts between Native and Western ways, between tradition and modern life, old and young, nature and technology. Stanley Sr. tries to impart the knowledge needed to live in Old Crow — how to shoot a gun, hunt caribou, skin a rabbit, make a fire, catch a fish. Junior goes along reluctantly, even petulantly at first, frustrated and cutting a forlorn figure in a wilderness he is clearly unprepared for. Although Old Crow is a “dry town,” he finds some home brew, falls in with the wrong crowd and begins reverting to his old ways.
But gradually something begins to change in Junior’s attitude. His father’s patience and abiding faith, the grandeur of the land and Junior’s own curiosity begin to take him in. He starts showing youthful glee in conquering some of the survival tasks he has been handed, and the new landscape and culture begin to show up as inspirations in his art. His respect for his father’s outlook and abilities grows, and their relationship warms. Though neither man can quite let his guard down, Stan Jr. goes from treating Stanley Sr. as a virtual stranger to accepting him as a father he wants to know.
Arctic Son is a documentary, of course, and not Hollywood fiction. There comes a time for Junior to return to Seattle, where all he has learned “up north” loses clarity in a world of lights, asphalt and social pressures. What, after all, does skinning a rabbit have to do with the temptations of drugs and alcohol? Back in Old Crow, the father is left to ponder not only his son’s struggles, but the fact that retreating to this place may no longer hold off the distractions and temptations that in many ways underlie his son’s conflicts.
As Junior struggles to decide where he belongs and what he values, it becomes clear that the Stanleys’ story is a metaphor for larger issues of identity, choice, change, redemption and ties that bind to us all to family and place.
“Arctic Son is the result of 10 years of hard work and was inspired by my chance meeting with a former Gwitchin Chief named Johnny Abel,” says director Walton. “Johnny felt that a film about the Gwitchin lifestyle could be a valuable tool in preserving the culture. I didn’t plan to tell this story through a father and son who had been estranged for most of their lives, but this story emerged as one of the strongest cultural lessons I witnessed.
“That is the nature of vérité filmmaking,” Walton continues. “You begin with an idea, and the final film is defined by the characters as their lives unfold before the camera.”