Through a student lens: Films focus on place, culture and climate change

11102016_sitka-filmmaking_courtesyFive Mount Edgecumbe High School students took part in a film-making class last year and will showcase their work at a screening in Sitka tonight. The films focus on place, culture, and climate change in a handful of villages across the state.

Emmett Williams has been in the film industry for decades. His work has taken him to Africa, South America and to big cities like New York and London. Most recently though, Sitka has been the focus of his storytelling career.

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“When I came to Sitka I met Peter Bradley at the Island Institute and we became not only good friends, but we had a lot of creative ideas that were similar,” Williams explained.

One of those ideas involved students at Mount Edgecumbe. The Island Institute, a Sitka-based nonprofit, was looking to start a storytelling program at the school. Williams, on the other hand, wanted to teach students about the more technical aspects of filmmaking.

“I was having a conversation about that with Annika Ord, the program manager of the Island Institute at the time, and we said, ‘We should do it together,’ and so Annika and I started working together and it’s been an amazing partnership,” Williams said.

That partnership resulted in a class at Mount Edgecumbe. With a $20,000 grant from the Crossett Fund, the Island Institute paid Williams and Ord and purchased eight high-quality audio and video kits for the students to use.

Williams said, in the beginning, students learned the basics of storytelling and documentary filmmaking.

“We also said, ‘These are examples of climate change stories. These are examples of stories about culture. These are examples of stories about place,'” Williams said. “And then we said, ‘Forget all that, what do you care about?’’”

Williams said it was important to let the students decide what each of their stories would be about. Once they had the basic training, each went home for the summer with film equipment in hand and an idea in mind.

“The five stories are based in Craig, Bethel, New Stuyahok, Klawock and Old Harbor,” Williams explained.

And their stories ended up being just as diverse as the places where they were filmed. Williams was careful not to give anything away, but he did say how impressed he is with each of the students.

“You know when you work with teenagers or kids sometimes you think, ‘You know, whatever they come back with I’ll be happy,'” Williams said. “‘I’m just happy they come back with something,’ but we were literally in shock at how amazing the footage and the interviews are.”

Williams has no doubt moviegoers will be just as amazed as he.

The films are being screened at Sitka’s Coliseum Theater Thursday, 6:00pm, followed by a question and answer with the student filmmakers. The event is free and open to the public.

Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer.

Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF.

Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about.

Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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