The three teenagers breeze through the cavernous Dimond Center mall, past Orange Julius and kiosks that sell hair extensions and “healing magnets,” as confidently as professional mallrats who could navigate the place in their sleep.
But they aren't.
“This place is so big,” whispers one of them, a soft-spoken high school senior named Minnie Tinker who lives in the village of Tununak, on the Bering Sea coast.
Instead, Tinker and her partners, Reed McWilliams and Sheila Evan, are aspiring filmmakers, in Anchorage for a weeklong workshop that aims to give Western Alaska youth the tools to tell their own stories on film.
Today, they’re scouting locations for a short film about a Yup'ik teenager who gets separated from her friend on her first trip to a shopping mall and uses tracking skills, developed on the tundra, to find her at the end of a trail of dropped Skittles.
They are among 14 students from Western Alaska participating in the Pilinguaq Project's Native Youth Film Academy, held this week in Anchorage.
Each wrote and scripted stories on the theme “survival,” to be told onscreen.
During the five-day academy, students have heard advice from professional lighting designers, actors and directors, as well as Bethel author Don Reardon. The director and manager of the Sundance Institute's Native American and Indigenous film development program, affiliated with the Sundance Film Festival, also spoke to the group.
The Pilinguaq Project is part of a broader federally-funded grant aimed at integrating arts into the standard school curriculum of Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta schools.
It's about teaching students to “express what they know in ways other than standardized tests,” says Annie Calkins, a veteran school arts administrator from Juneau who is evaluating the grant.
It's also an effort to sow the region with aspiring filmmakers versed in lighting techniques and Adobe Premiere.
Corey Joseph of Kwigillingok is one of them.
The short film he wrote entirely in Yu’pik is about a boy who moves from a village to the city with his mother so she can find work. The boy is unhappy in his new home, and angry at his mother. One day he has a flashback of his grandfather telling him that as long as he follows the advice of his elders, he'll be OK.
For Joseph, producing films in the Yu’pik language is crucial. Ways of describing the land and the entire Yu’pik worldview just don't translate to English. He'd like to turn some traditional stories into films.
The beauty of filmmaking is “the freedom to tell the story you want and have control of how it’s told,” Joseph says.
That’s something that Yukon-Kuskokwim residents could use more of, says Calkins.
When she was in Bethel a few weeks back, she heard of no less than three different film crews who were in the region filming various TV and film projects in the surrounding villages.
“When they got to the villages they shot their film and flew away,” she said. “There weren’t any Alaskans who were a part of that.”
Preparing kids from the region – one of Alaska’s most economically-depressed – for jobs in the state’s emerging film industry is crucial, she says.
When the major motion picture “Everybody Loves Whales” filmed in Alaska, it brought more than 110 out-of-state crew members. Alaska needs to raise its own gaffers, producers, key grips and lighting designers, Calkins said, to get a fair piece of the film production industry pie.
Back at the Dimond Mall, the crew is on to filming scenes of the script tentatively called ‘Lost’ (though its author Sheila Evan thinks “Skittle Signals” might also be a good title). They've found a quiet corner to shoot and reshoot a scene where one of the characters goes up an escalator looking frightened. Sheila Evan, who wrote the script, works with Reed McWilliams, acting as cameraman and director, while Minnie Tinker acts.
Afterwards, the group excitedly rehashes the day. Tinker says she’s having second thoughts about something: She used to want to be a pilot, but now she wants to be a filmmaker, too.
Organizers hope the “small but significant work” of the project will spark students like Tinker to pursue film careers. They don’t have to leave the state to do it anymore, either: the University of Alaska Fairbanks just approved a new interdisciplinary film major, to be offered as early as this fall.