Story last updated at 7/27/2011 - 1:24 pm
When Luke Griswold-Tergis and Cory Mann first came up with the idea to make a movie back in 2005, they thought it would be easy.
"We had a nice video camera, a laptop, and we thought, 'We'll shoot it over the summer and then we'll party like rock stars," said Griswold-Tergis, who lives in Haines. "The 'partying like rock stars' has yet to come."
After five years of work, however, the effort has paid off. The recently completed "Smokin' Fish" is heading out to screens big and small this year, with local showings in Haines and Juneau, as well as an upcoming national airing on PBS and appearances at film festivals, including the Mill Valley Film Festival in California.
On the surface, the documentary is about young Juneau businessman Cory Mann's sojourn to the village of Klukwan to smoke fish with his family, who still use traditional methods and ceremonies in the process. Along the way, many tales are told: Mann's own life story, that of his Native heritage, and of both his ultra-modern and time-honored business dealings.
Griswold-Tergis and Mann met in Alaska a decade ago and, both concerned with the disappearing tradition of oral history in Alaska Native culture, had tossed around the idea of making a film. Elders have a deep focus on the past and its connection with the present and future, Griswold-Tergis said.
"Kind of a different take on (it) than the 'normal' American take on the past," he said.
After the death of Mann's grandmother, the two realized they needed to follow through with the project.
Mann's personal history is one of disparate threads being woven together. He straddles a racial divide, with a Tlingit mother and a white father. Growing up in his matriarchal family, he also faces the roles men and women are expected to play in the "modern" world. The predominant theme of the film is the traditional teachings of the Tlingit people in contrast to the "American way of life," separated by a gulf of the devastating history, the white colonization of Alaska and its aftermath, and exemplified through the traditional method of smoking fish. We see a culture that has resided on the land for centuries asking for permission to catch fish from the Department of Fish & Game rather than from the fish.
The film goes deeper into some of the history and mythology of Alaska Native peoples, through photographs, and personal and historical reflections, including interviews with preeminent Tlingit elder leader and scholar Walter Soboleff, who died at the age of 102 earlier this year, and renowned Juneau storyteller Ishmael Hope.
The best narratives in the film are offered up by Mann's family, most notably his aunt, Sally Burattin, whose long view, wise words and humor comes through everything she says. Griswold-Tergis stresses that the narrative of "Smokin' Fish" is specifically about Mann's experiences.
"We're not trying to be authoritative on the subject," he said.
Simultaneously, back in the "modern world," Mann runs his business, Stories & Legends, selling everything from rugs to mugs decorated with traditional Native art. He focuses on international manufacturing, issues with the IRS, worries about bills. From Southeast Alaska to Southeast Asia, he's tried his hand at several businesses, as tour guide, manufacturer of underwear and prophylactics, and was even offered the chance to sell military boats and bullets to China.
Mann's journeys in "Smokin' Fish," visualized by some great Indiana Jones-style maps, also demonstrates the draw of the various clashing roles he fills in his life. In Juneau, he is an international entrepreneur, dealing with day-to-day finances and phone calls, driving around in an assortment of beat vehicles to handle product shipments. In Klukwan, he is both a member of his clan and, in simultaneously touching and humorous interactions, still very much a "child" amid the matriarchy. On a trip up to the Yukon to trade fish for moose meat with another village, he is once again a businessman, though on a much more intimate level. Out on the water, where he spends a lot of the film, he is between all of these roles.
In one scene he heads to Skagway ostensibly to "take care of some banking," though the trip seems more about eating blueberry pie and watching the marine life without having to think about commodifying them in any way.
The best musings by Mann occur on boats, when he's paddling out to net some fish, or sailing to get away from his real lives for a few moments. Skipping quickly around to funny anecdotes, family stories and historical reflections, he shows how truly uncontrived Griswold-Tergis' filmmaking is.
All of the pieces of Mann's story - his personal struggles, his heritage, and the larger context of the disruption of the Alaska Natives' traditional way of life - are really there, not just added on to create tension. The result is a relevant, respectful and hip look at the continuing story of Southeast Alaska, as cultures come together, mix and create something entirely new. As Mann's Aunt Sally says in the film, "To us, the past, the present and the future are one of the same. In the way we think, it's all the same, it's intertwined."
"Smokin' Fish" will be playing this week at the Southeast Alaska State Fair in Haines, July 28-31, with daily showings at the Photographer's Building in Dalton City. For details, go online at seakfair.org.
The film will also be opening in Juneau at the Gold Town Nickelodeon at a special screening Wednesday, Aug. 3. The door will open at 6:30 p.m., with snacks and beverages, and a "Smoked Salmon (or other fish) Dip Sampling & Contest." Anyone can enter a dip of their making and their recipe if they wish (competitors will get in for $5). People are encouraged to bring any traditional or gathered food they'd like to share as well. The movie starts at 7:30 p.m. People can cast a ballot for their favorite dish, and the winner, who will receive prizes, will be announced after the movie, when there will also be a Q&A with Griswold-Tergis. There will also be two more screenings on Aug. 5 & 6. For more information, go online at www.goldtownnick.com.