Arctic Son

PBS Premiere: Aug. 21, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: Describe this film for someone who hasn't seen it.

Andrew Walton: Arctic Son is a redemption story. It's about a father and a son who've been estranged for the better part of 20 years who are reunited because
the son is getting into some trouble and the father wants to try to straighten him out. They come from very different worlds, and the film follows the course of their relationship from being reunited through some ups and downs.

POV: How did you come to make this film?

Walton: I had been working in Old Crow for a number of years, researching a film about the drilling issue in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Old Crow is a community that, were they to drill in the Arctic Refuge, would likely be adversely affected in a number of ways, including because the caribou herd that they hunt could be impacted. During one of those trips when I was up there trying to find a storyline, Stanley Sr. knocked on my door one night wondering who I was and what I was up to. In the course of getting to know him, I learned more about his life and thought he and his son had a pretty interesting story.

POV: How long did it take you to make Arctic Son, and can you describe the process for us?

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Walton: Arctic Son took about five years to make. As a non-native filmmaker working in a Native village 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, you stick out like a sore thumb, and because there has been press about the Arctic Refuge and about Old Crow, they're wary about filmmakers or anyone associated with the press. So the process for this film was really about building trust and being patient. Nothing was going to happen if we forced it. The subjects are very private and didn't reveal anything to me until after we had spent a lot of
time together. These are men living in a subsistence-hunting community in the Arctic — they're not forthcoming with their feelings. It took time for them to believe that what I really wanted was for them to tell their own story in their own words. In the end, I think my greatest satisfaction was that these guys let us into their lives. Any documentary that's any good is
about great access, and the only way that we got the access was by proving ourselves and being upfront about what we were doing and who we were. I don't think that after they saw the film they thought it was any different than what we had pitched them in the first place.

POV: How did you manage to capture the intimate, quiet moments of the film, considering that these are two reticent men who are getting to know each other as father and son?

Walton: We hired Jonathan Furmanski as the director of photography, and Jon is very good at becoming invisible. He's not one of these cameramen who runs around starting and stopping things. Jon finds an angle, and he stays there and lives there for a while. In the course of making this film we spent a lot of time with the Stans, as we called them, literally sleeping on their floor at night, and the camera was rolling most of the time. So at a certain point the camera, Jon and I became invisible to them, and the quiet moments were allowed to happen. Anything that was going to happen was going to be subtle, so we had to have the camera rolling and be in the right place at the right time.

POV: After meeting Stanley Sr., what was it about his experience with his son that made you want to make a documentary about it?

Walton: When I first met Stan Sr. I had a slightly different film in mind. I was so impressed by the folks in Old Crow that still subsistence hunt. Food is extremely expensive — everything gets air-freighted in. There is a small general store, but steak is $30 a pound. When I met Stan Sr. I was investigating a film idea about modern-day subsistence hunting in North America. I was immediately impressed by him as a hunter. He took me out one night in a Ski-Doo trip up on a mountain late at night to hunt caribou. It was still quite light out, and I could sense from how he carried himself on the land how his ancestors had carried themselves on the land, and how important it still was to them for both practical and cultural reasons. It wasn't until I met Junior that it started to click. Stan Sr. never came to me and said, "I've lived up here my whole life, and my son has lived in Seattle. He had some problems so I brought him up here," but when we met both of them we put two and two together. Stan Sr. is one of the smartest people I've met on a lot of different levels. As a filmmaker, when you meet somebody that has a presence and a confidence, and so much knowledge, you're drawn to them. I just liked him as a person. The more that I got to know of him and his story, it seemed to be the best way to tell a story in Old Crow. The story found me when he came and knocked on the door.

POV: Describe Old Crow for those who haven't seen the film.

Walton: Old Crow is not accessible by road. The only way to get there, for most people, is to fly. In the summertime, when the river is not frozen, people come through on paddling trips. It's like a lot of small towns elsewhere in the world where everybody knows everybody, and that can be good and bad. It has a lot of amazing people whose families have lived there for generations. Visually, Old Crow has two components: the village itself and then the bush, or the land. The village looks like a small town anywhere, only with very few cars and a dirt road. It's pretty rustic, with wooden cabins and houses. There's good fishing in the river, and the town itself is geographically positioned to intercept the migratory path of the Porcupine caribou herd. You don't often travel to a lot of places in this day and age that still have subsistence-hunting cultures like in Old Crow. In the bush, the tree height is pretty low because of the short growing season, so there's a vastness to the landscape and you can see great distances on clear days, to a range of mountains or tundra. It has a scale and a graphic
simplicity that from a filmmaking standpoint is really appealing. From a human standpoint, experientially it's very different. That part of the world really is true wilderness. When you step out of the village when the bears aren't hibernating, you really get a sense of not necessarily being at the top of the food chain. You never go anywhere without a gun if you go out of the
village. Bears are a real threat.

POV: Were there any surprises for you in making this film?

Walton: In terms of the characters and their personalities, when I first met Stan Sr., I had no idea that he was such a tremendously funny guy with a very dry sense of humor. For a man who never went to college, he's incredibly educated. As I understand it, he was responsible for negotiating a large portion of the land claim settlement between the Vuntut Gwitchin
First Nation and the Yukon government, which is a big deal in that part of the world. A lot of the indigenous people who live in that area have lived there for 50,000 years. In the United States, unfortunately when you think of Native Americans, you think of casinos and reservations, even though Native American people have a lot of great cultural attributes and are contributing in a lot of different ways. But when you go to a Native village like Old Crow, it's obviously not a reservation, it's their own land, and they're basically self-governed. They're still
hunting, still fishing, still living on the land with a lot of control in their destiny. I think that is ultimately why Stan Sr. wanted to tell his story. He is a huge proponent of cultural preservation and of handing these traditions down to the next generation. When he understood that the film was going to be about telling Junior about the culture and showing him some of the hunting traditions, I think he knew it was a risk to expose himself personally, but it was important for him to show his son these things and let his son determine whether or not he wanted them to be part of his life, but also to have some sort of a record for future generations of what hunting, fishing, snaring a rabbit or cooking on a fire looks like. That never specifically came up, but he's smart enough to know that this film is essentially a permanent record of that piece of the culture, even though it's on a small scale, just between him and Junior.

Junior was also surprising in a lot of ways. I had no idea that he is such a gifted artist, and how his art was so different from the side that he presents to people on a daily basis. We were hanging out one night in the house and nothing much was going on, as often happened a lot in Old Crow, and he pulled out these sketchbooks that he's been working on for years. His
work reminded me of that of Hieronymus Bosch. When he started talking about it, you could tell it was from his soul and his heart. He wasn't derivative at all. The things that he was drawing were very private and very personal, but they were amazing and told a lot about who he was.

POV: The film touches on issues like global warming. What more can you tell us about the environmental issues facing the Old Crow community?

Walton: In the film you find out that the temperatures have been rising gradually over the years and that the permafrost is starting to melt. When the permafrost starts to melt, sediment starts to fill up the river and it kills the fish population, and the fish are feeding the animals, so it affects the whole food chain. When you go to an area like the Arctic and you are exposed to global warming firsthand, by an educated person who has lived there their entire life and knows the land and sees its changes, it really hits home. It
was profound to talk to Stan Sr. about global warming and to really see permafrost dripping in wintertime. There are other environmental issues in that part of the world that I was exposed to. For example, people in that part of the world eat fish and other things as well, but caribou is a big part of the diet, culture and day-to-day life. It's come out recently that mercury from acid rain is picked up in the lichens, and the caribou eat the lichens and fill their bodies with mercury. In that part of the world, cancer and infant mortality rates are high. You really start to see how small the world is when you go to a community that suffers from some of the same social and environmental issues of New York City.

POV: Do you think that communities like Old Crow will survive?

Walton: "Survive" is a relative term. I think that Old Crow will survive because the people that are charting the course for Old Crow are smart. They pay a lot of attention to history, to what's going on in the present, and to what's going to happen in the future. Old Crow is steeped in its traditions but is also really savvy. It's equipped with high-speed Internet and satellite television, so the people are in touch with what's happening around them and in the rest of the world, making them much better able to control where they're going. If there are people that want to come up there and mine diamonds or drill for oil, they're stewards of the land and can say, "Yeah, we think that's okay and we could do it," or "No, we couldn't." The Gwitchin nation as a whole has done a really tremendous job lobbying politicians in Washington, D.C., about the Arctic drilling issue. They have spent millions of dollars and countless hours organizing trips down to Washington to talk to congressmen. They're not sitting back in their houses with the snow flying and not paying attention to what's going on around them. But will the culture survive in terms of hunting and fishing? That's a hard question to answer. They educate the kids in school about subsistence hunting, and certainly the parents take their kids out on the land. When the caribou migrate around that village, there is a buzz and an electricity in the air that's like nothing I've ever seen. The kids come pouring out of the school and running down the street if there's a caribou crossing the ice on the river. As long as the natural world around them still allows them those ties to their culture, then I think they'll survive indefinitely. But some of the things that are happening in the natural world around them are out of their control, and they could face some serious challenges in the next 50 to 100 years.

POV: Who do you want to see this film?

Walton: I think there are a few audiences for this film. There's a captive audience in people who are enthusiastic about Native culture and the environment, and there's another audience that is curious about the Arctic. But the audience comes away discovering that the film really transcends cultural and environmental issues because it's really a story about a relationship between a father and a son. I've had friends who have seen the film that had no idea what I was working on, who have also had trouble with their fathers, and it's really made them think about those relationships. I didn't set out to make a film about a father and a son, but it struck me as a very human story applicable to a lot of people from many different cultures. You don't have to be a huge history buff or a cultural buff or an environmental buff to like this movie.

POV: If you had one piece of advice for a first-time filmmaker, what would it be?

Walton: You really have to make films that are true to your heart. I didn't go to film school, I didn't get a master's, but I've had success making films because I've done films that I respond to emotionally. It's really daunting to try to make a movie these days. When you get down to making a real movie that needs money and everything else, there are a lot of obstacles, but the only thing that keeps you going past all those obstacles is if you feel the movie in your heart and you can see the scenes unfolding on the screen.