Ethnographic documentary filmmakers Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling: an interview.
Article Type:
Documentary filmmakers (Interviews)
Miller, Cynthia
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Name: Post Script Publisher: Post Script, Inc. Audience: General; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business; Business, international Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Post Script, Inc. ISSN: 0277-9897
Date: Fall, 2007 Source Volume: 27 Source Issue: 1
Named Person: Elder, Sarah; Kamerling, Leonard
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

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Only rarely does an ethnographic documentary receive recognition outside the anthropological community. Such is the case, however, with The Drums of Winter (Uksuum Cauyai), a feature-length documentary on Yup'ik Eskimo dance and the ways in which it is embedded in community culture. "Drums..." blurs the boundaries between verite methods and participatory filmmaking, resulting in an intimate, collaborative portrait of the creative and spiritual aspects of Yup'ik life. Since its 1988 release, the film has garnered numerous honors, both nationally and internationally, including Best Documentary, Best Documentary Director, and Best Cinematography at the 1998 Festival of the Native Americas. "Drums ..." was named to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in November of 2006, joining Hollywood blockbusters like Gone with the Wind and Rocky. The film is one of a small number of documentaries to have been included in the Registry, and only the second Alaskan-produced film to have been so honored (the first being the 2002 selection of The Chechahcos, a 1924 silent film produced by Austin Lathrop). Nearly 1000 films were nominated with The Drums of Winter for the 2006 Registry, but only 25 were chosen, ranging from silent films and early features, to well-known titles such as Fargo (1996), Blazing Saddles (1974), Halloween (1978), Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), and Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989).

I recently spoke with the filmmakers of The Drums of Winter, Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling about the making of the film, its significance as an ethnographic documentary, and the importance of its inclusion in the National Film Registry. For both, the drive to chronicle Yup'ik life has a long history, born from the lack of self-representation and voice evidenced in documentary films about indigenous and non-Western peoples.

Sarah: In the 60s, I was studying anthropology at Sarah Lawrence College. I was very aware of the politics of power, and I had just seen a number of films made in North Vietnam, and I was aware of how profoundly I was changed by seeing "the enemy'--their films, which were lovely, lovely films--I suddenly realized that the way I was understanding Vietnamese culture was basically through our government and that nobody was speaking to me directly. No Vietnamese were directly speaking to me. We had these illicit films, or illegal, from the North, and I was very moved by them, very moved by seeing farmers talking about what it's like to have American bombers flying over them and things like that. Simultaneously, I was in anthropology classes, and I was looking at the classics--Gardner's Dead Birds, Marshall's The Hanters, and things like that, and I was thinking, 'My God, there's nobody in these films who are representing themselves or speaking for themselves. The whole thing is this kind of fantastical imaginary, carved out by the filmmakers.' So, I really started thinking about what it would be like to have films made by people who had no empowerment in their lives. And that stuck with me, and instead of becoming an anthropologist, I became a filmmaker--for much the same reasons, I think, that I would have been an anthropologist, which is that I was really interested in getting different societies to understand each other in a really value-based way, culture-based way, not a political way.


For Kamerling, who would later become her partner in the Alaska Native Heritage film Project, this crisis of representation was even more direct and personal.

Len: In the mid-'60s, I took a year off from college and joined VISTA, and I ended up in a small Yup'ik village in Southwest Alaska, where I had my worldview turned around rather dramatically. I was a New York City kid, and I was suddenly in this native village. I was seeing all my expectations reversed, because I had seen all those horrible documentaries about the North and other places, and I expected the "Noble Savage" and "man against nature" and that's not what I found at all. I found people with a real reciprocity with nature and the landscape, and so, I made those discoveries over that year, and got to know people who were very much a part of this reciprocity, worked hard as subsistence people, and it opened a window into a whole other way of thinking about the world.

During this year, I did a lot of thinking about why I had never seen any films that really got it 'right' about this quality of life there, about the sort of quiet, everyday routines that I thought had the most to say about what the culture was about. I started to see films after I did go back to school that gave me ideas, like Asen Balikci's "Netsilik" series. That was very exciting because it was the most radical thing I had ever seen. It did away with the narrator and any mediation for the viewer. Although I had no training in anthropology, and was not out to make ethnographic films, whatever that is, I was definitely interested and moved by those films, and wanted to move in that direction--some amalgam of film and anthropology.

During the next several years, Elder and Kamerling each followed separate paths into filmmaking. Kamerling returned to the Arctic, and made his first film, The People of Tununuk in a small Yup'ik village on Nelson Island, off the Bering seacoast, in 1972, while Elder worked with Timothy Asche and John Marshall at the Center for Documentary Anthropology.

The two filmmakers met at the University of Alaska and began working together, and where Elder became a "participant observer" in the community of Emmonak.


S: At that time, I decided there was no way I could make films in Alaska because I really didn't understand the culture, I hadn't lived in it, I hadn't lived it in a daily way, I had no knowledge of it. So, in 1972, I took a teaching job, and went to Emmonak, which is where Drums of Winter was made. There were no local high schools in the villages in Alaska. This is over 400 villages. There were no high schools anybody could go to, they had to go to boarding schools. So there was just beginning a strong movement for Alaska native autonomy that paralleled the Red Power movement. The village of Emmonak, in the name of this one very famous person now called Molly Hooch, who was a young high school girl--held a class action suit that the high school children of Emmonak should have the same opportunity as every other American to go to high school in their own town. So, the state agreed, didn't go into the lawsuit, and instead said "Okay, we're going to build high schools in every major village, which meant something like 75 villages. And the first year, to show good faith, we're going to start a school. So I was the one who became the school. I went there, and I taught high school--all the grades and all the courses. I became the principal and only teacher at Emmonak high school. That's how I got there. I taught school in same plain little house that I lived in, and got to know the village very well because I was there for over a year.


It was during this time that Elder became increasingly interested in what was known as "Eskimo Dance"--a vibrant form of cultural expression which, while not widely embraced, was nonetheless persistent, and deeply embedded in the everyday life, history, and cultural identity of the community.

S: I heard there was this thing called Eskimo Dancing. That's what they called it, Eskimo Dance. At the time it was not very vital. People occasionally referred to it. I didn't really even know about it the first three months I was there. When I first started paying attention to it, about every few weeks, I would go to this local Pentecostal missionary to speak English. I would want to speak fluent English and read a newspaper, and they'd have maybe a week or two-week old newspapers hanging around their house, and I'd go over there for tea, and they would missionize me and preach to me. They were really nice people and gave me homemade bread and week-old Anchorage newspapers. I asked the wife if she'd ever been to this Eskimo Dancing, and she got very upset and said that I should never go, because the evil was there, and if I went, even if I was innocent, the evil spirits there would enter me, and it was a very dangerous place to be because the devil and his spirits were floating around the old traditional dance house, so I immediately went.

I was warned that you shouldn't go there before the men are finished with their steam bath because, as in the film what we see in the beginning of their steam bath, they take all their clothes off and they're sitting there with this fire going and they're sitting in there sweating, and as a woman, you can't go in there with a bunch of naked men. And people told me it was a sacred house and that I needed to be respectful when I went there. I remember my heart was really beating the first time I went. I asked a friend to go with me. I went with a young woman--she didn't go too often, but she said she'd take me. I went a few times with friends, and then I started going by myself. The first time I walked in there, it was sort of an underground place that didn't look like a house, it was half buried, and during the day it had no activity at all. I went in in the nighttime, and there's this entryway which is very dark and has no light--and you go in, and all of a sudden, you're in this place that's maybe 20x20, and this low light and this unbelievable music and dancing and this vitality and this energy, and this loud, fantastic beat and there's like eight drums and the voices are beautiful and there are children in there, and old people in there, extended families in there, and I was so overcome with the beauty of it a and the intimacy of it and at that moment said I have to make a film of this. It was such an extraordinarily beautiful place--secret place--in this village. It wasn't secret to anybody there, the residents knew about it, but it was secret to the outside world. So that's when I really said to myself that I wanted to make a film there. I knew no one had ever filmed Yup'ik dancing anywhere in the world. I thought it would be valuable to put it on film for both the people there and for the outer world to become exposed to this beautiful art form, which actually nobody except a few anthropologists and a few missionaries, Catholic priests, really knew about in the outer world.

L: That's not just about privacy or "insider information." It's song ownership, and some of that goes way back. And also, at its guarded center, the dance and the songs are a kind of vehicle that traditionally mediated for people between the seen world and the unseen world--the touchable world and the world where the spirits and the animals live that people could come to them. And although any missionary would tell you that that doesn't exist anymore, it exists very powerfully in an unspoken way. You see other ways as well, but the dance is the primary communal way that comes out.

S: Over time, I think I really understood some of the deeper values of what dance is for the village, and how it is kind of an adhesive--a glue that brought their values together at various levels---economic and religious, and the clans, and things like that. It was a manifestation of many of their deeper values.

One day, after I'd been going for quite a while, the older women said 'go up and dance,' but I didn't. I had no idea how to dance. The elder women really have enormous authority, I would say equal to the male elders, and when an elder person asked me to do something, I could not say no. In the course of a week, they kept pushing me out to go to the middle of the dance floor--really pushing me physically and laughing, and I knew I couldn't refuse. So the next few nights I watched particularly carefully, and I picked a dance--they have about 20-21 dances they're preparing, and I saw one that I thought was really easy. It turned out that they had picked that dance for me already. So then, I really started concentrating on the movements and the words and the melody and the beat. I got up and I danced. They put a man right in front of me so I could watch him, and I'll never forget it--I was shaking ... my hands were just trembling. I was messing everything up and I was bright red with embarrassment, and I was absolutely in terrible pain--just ashamed of myself for messing it up so much. And I had these real awkward movements, you know, they all learn to dance when they're four years old, and I was very awkward.

After that, the next day, word spread around the village and everywhere I went, people congratulated me and thanked me, and said "Oh, we heard you danced!" I didn't know what I was getting in for. After that, the dance boss, Stanley Wasca came to my house and said "I'm going to help you." He started telling me more about dancing and encouraging me, and he actually composed a song for me to dance, and he showed me the movements--I would give him coffee and breakfast--then he would show me the movements. He would break them down for me. And as time went on we became very good friends, and I began to talk to him a lot about the meaning of the songs. He was a major composer in the village and he began to share his thoughts about how he composes a new song, the history of it, and things like that. His family had all died from tuberculosis, he had lost his wife, and he lived alone, which is unusual, and I became one of the people that would feed him breakfast. We had a lovely mutual relationship where we'd talk about music and dancing all the time. So then, they decided that I was going to dance at a potlatch, and I went along with it.

Potlatch ceremonies, festive events that traditionally served to establish reciprocal relationships between groups and establish hierarchies of prestige, generally included feasting, music, and dance. These ceremonies were made illegal by the Canadian government in 1884, but the ban was lifted in 1951. Present day potlatches remain key to the cultural identity of many Native North American groups. They may be held for a variety of social occasions, and continue to showcase dance as a significant corn

After the first couple of weeks of me dancing for practice before the potlatch, they announced that I had to make a first dance, which means, if you don't have a family that has much resources to give away gifts the way we see in "Drums ...," you still have to "mark" your first dance. It's essential to their culture that they have these "firsts"--first berry picking, first hunting, first dance. So they told me that I couldn't really dance in the sacred dance house unless I marked it. So they helped me, and I made Eskimo ice cream. They make that for any kind of celebration--you see it in "Drums ..." when a new baby is born and an older woman is giving it for her niece's baby. So they made me do that, and I made the ice cream, which is really made from white fish, seal oil, and berries frozen together. And I bought soda pop and tobacco, and I brought them to the dance house and then the spirits would allow me to dance, because I formally showed gratitude that I had been initiated. So, then I danced in the potlatch. Of course, this potlatch is with their rival dancing village. You really want to compete and make the best show. And one of the ways to make a big show is to have this awkward, tall white woman dancing, who everybody laughs at. So, everybody laughed at me, and I danced, and it was a good show for them ...

One of the most important components of this early period was a careful rapport-building within the community. Elder and Kamerling talked at length about the importance of building relationships and living the culture prior to beginning their film project.

L: Sarah spent a year there and got to know people and participated in the dance, and got to know the dancers and the singers, and that really made it possible for us to go and make the film in four months and build on those relationships that she had already started. Without that, "Drums..." would have been impossible. And, I think they wouldn't have agreed for us to come in and make the film.

S: Yes, in many ways, I think that film really was based on my year there, five years earlier. The community of dancers was about 50-75 people, and I knew them all individually, so bringing a camera in, and bringing lights in ... I couldn't imagine doing it the way we were shooting our other films--we spent about three months in our other films, two months in the village. This really needed a networking and an understanding of what was going on deeper than three months.

L: Right, the relationships and trusts that we establish, that's really what this film was about and that's what was going to open doors into the deeper understanding and the levels of intimacy that we wanted the film to be about--that we hope defines the film. The first month we were there, we did very little except visit with people. Once we actually started filming, in the dance hall, in the Kashim which was the traditional men's house, we were there everyday, we had it lit every day, and we were just there every day whether we were filming or not, so we started to be a presence and people started to get used to that presence.


The first thing we filmed was practice for the potlatch, and we didn't really do any of the interviews with people until the very last week that we were there. So, we tried to just capitalize on the time we had spent and our presence there. If we had done the interviews earlier, we would have gotten a lot of dead ends. People reveal a lot in the film, that's why I think the film works, and why it's had legs, so to speak, because it recreates the intimacy of the dance and people's lives surrounding it. And that was something that evolved very slowly.

I think there was a general evaluation, a testing, of our trustworthiness to hear that information. Sarah's living there and having good friends helped that enormously, and then, over time, people started to talk. And then there's also the asset of being a foreigner--the rules don't apply--so people can be open in a way that they're not with other people in the village, who have known them since they were little kids. So, that's a little contradictory, but I think those two elements are working.

So, I think it takes a lot of presence, a lot of being there, a lot of being quiet and listening, and showing that attitude of respect and observation, which has always suited me. I've always felt comfortable just doing that.


The Drums of Winter was the sixth-film to emerge from a prolific fifteen years for the two filmmakers, as they followed a path that would continue to develop into the community collaborative style for which their work is celebrated.

L: One of the things that distinguished this series that I began in Tununuk in 1972, was that I really saw the key to making these films as having some kind of shared authorship, collaboration, rather than just coming in as the author with control and making the films. That's why they all took so long--that's why the location period was so long. So that collaboration was key, and the kind of trusts that held it up were essential. In that kind of collaboration, when it works, surprising things happen. It goes in surprising directions. The biggest is to be open and flexible and relinquish control of the process and not cling to one's expectations to the point where it strangles the momentum of the process. Every film is substantially different from what we started out with, what we envisioned.

S: We founded our film project, called the Alaska Native Heritage Film Project, with the very explicit purpose of giving the authority of control to the communities that we were filming. We started making films doing this, and we really had to experiment in the beginning--we really didn't know how to do this--and over the course of 10-15 years, we honed our methods quite a bit.

I think Lenny and I like to think of the film as a "community collaborative" film and not "community determined," which was a term that we developed in our early filming years, that we really still believed that you could be an objective filmmaker-that the community could determine something and the filmmakers wouldn't have influence over the community. We gradually grew out of that and in Drums of Winter, we really saw it as a collaborative effort--our effort and the village's effort--and they were equal. I think as filmmakers when we filmed, we knew we were filmmakers--we were the authors, and we understood theoretically by that point that filmmakers are really the authors and they're not representing other people, they're representing themselves. So in many ways we understood we were representing Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling's concerns. What we were trying to do is work as a team with the village to find out what was most important to document and preserve at that time in history, and work as a team, the village, the residents and us, and put the whole thing together and come up with something that was really valuable. I think we were very much interested in not seeing dancing as something special to the village, but something that was absolutely integrated with village life

One of the complexities of the community collaborative method is that it requires the filmmakers to relinquish a great deal of their traditionally--held control and presence in the film. Elder and Kamerling talked about how this affected the making of The Drums of Winter, and their perceptions of the costs and benefits of such an approach.

L: That was a very early decision, and I think that's just a style, a kind of voice that came out of my experience, and later, Sarah's experience of being in villages and living in that culture, that environment. I have never been attracted to more self-reflexive films, and it also wasn't in vogue the way it is today.

S: People often ask, 'As a filmmaker you give up so much control, how can it be a representation of your own artistic vision?' And I'm asked that over and over again by documentary makers, and they say I could never work like you because you give away all of your control. My answer to that is that's only bad if you're a top-down kind of filmmaker to give a way control, but then it doesn't work because then you have fragments of your own vision of what's going on and you get fragmented material. But if your basic intention is to have a film come out of the fabric of the community then it's only to my advantage that I would give away control, it can only help me. It's a real tightrope that you walk.

L: And because I'm still thinking like a filmmaker, I still always worry--how am I going to end this film? Where's the story going to be? And then suddenly, there's an opening, and in that opening, the story is revealed and I follow it.

S: I have made films without doing community determined filmmaking. I've made films that aren't that way, and you do it in a separate way, but when you're doing a community kind of thing, I don't have a problem because if I'm really using the system it seems to work, but I've made many non-community films, and there's a real difference to them.

L: And any sophisticated viewer knows that the film is a presence, but the voice of the film is about the time, the place, the way time passes in the place. The subtle nuances of interaction between people really become lost when that presence is broken. And perhaps, if we had started these films ten years later, we would have felt differently about it, given MacDougal solved this very subtly in the kinds of films with a shot in the mirror of the camera. That gave voice to the presence of the camera. And I think it was a good choice. I think today it's part of the timelessness of the films--the fact that the films we made in the '70s work as well today because that's not in there.


In all the films, we go to the community and we stay there. None of the films have been made making period trips to a place. That continuity is very important. The relationships and trusts that we establish, that's really what this film is about and that's what's going to open doors into the deeper understanding and the levels of in timacy that we wanted the films to be about--that we hope defines the film.

S: I love reflexivity in that I think it gives the viewer a better understanding of the total reality of the film crew, their mind, their aesthetic, and the film subject. However, I think for various reasons, I thought if we brought ourselves in there, for one, in a very real sense, it would change the tone of the film. I really wanted it to be about the village. However, I wanted it to be a little more reflexive, I think, than Lenny did. So we had a couple of conversations about this, and we settled on very subtle ways. There's a scene before the steam bath where one of the men says "Hey, they're taking pictures of us" We left that in because we wanted to remind people that they were very aware that we were taking pictures and were not unsophisticated about it. That's just a small reminder in there--the scene where Stanley sings the theme song from the Titanic. Lenny and I argued about that a long time, and I won that one. It comes out of nowhere, and Lenny was very correct in his argument that it doesn't have any sense. It comes out of nowhere and is just plunked in there. My feeling was that it was going to operate at a more unconscious level. I did not want people to walk away thinking that Stanley was like Nanook, that he lived in another world and only sang in Yup'ik and had never listened to the radio. I thought it was a very small, iconic scene that would place him more in an American world. I knew that it was not a seamless place to put it--I couldn't find a place to put it in the film--so I put it in best as I could. But I felt that it was very important to remind the viewer in an unconscious way that they were a part of American society, and that he was a good singer, and that he liked music, and that he had a relationship with us as a film crew, because he talks to us and then he puts his hand up and says "Enough," so you can see his relationship with us in that--that he's very much collaborating with us. It's very direct. He's looking right into the lens. It's very clear that we're not hiding. It's really him and us in that room, and I think on an unconscious level it's reflexive in a way--in a more subtle way than seeing a microphone or seeing a person say "Here I was, doing this film, thinking about this or that." So it was kind of an awkward way for me to insert some of our presence. I wanted to put a little bit more, but we wanted to keep the tone. I think we felt that the people in the village would really value the film more if we stayed out of it.


S: Lenny and I used to argue all the time at the editing table, saying 'who's our audience? The villagers come first, the filmmakers come second, and New York City film festivals third. And I think that's how we actually broke it out in the end. If it was something offensive or information that nobody else would get beside the people who lived in Emmonak, our priority of audience first were the people in the village, and if there was some information that we knew nobody in the outside world would get, we would still leave that in the film because it was important for the village. And there were a few times when I made decisions because I wanted to represent all of the clans or factions of the village. There were various kinship lineages and I made sure they were all represented in the film and obviously nobody outside of Emmonak is going to know that. So that was a choice made for the people in the village. And then there may be a filmmaking choice that really wouldn't impact anything in the film, but was made for an audience in New York because we wanted to win awards, we would make a choice for what we called the New York City Film Jurists, but they were third, if we were having to make priorities.


Each of these aspects of collaboration, intimacy, and voice moves the film away from the cinema verite style made popular by documentarians in the 1960s-'70s, yet refined its concern with the social and political implications of what was captured on film. In this sense, The Drums of Winter more closely resembles a work of visual ethnography.

S: While Lenny and I really were working in a verite style, I was coming out of more of an anthropological background than most documentary makers, so there are scenes in "Drums ..." that are in the lineage of Marshall and Asche thinking. We used to say "whole bodies, whole acts, whole events" which I think Heider refers to. That was something I was very careful to do, and when Lenny and I talked about how we would film, we were really careful to try to have details, but also have whole events and whole bodies so things wouldn't be disembodied--or that we wouldn't show an event that didn't have a grounding in a larger social system. I think ethnography comes out of a holistic understanding of cultural values and not just one area. You can't just look at religion or economics, you have to see how the whole thing comes together. I tried to have some kind of understanding of the different layers of Yup'ik society--economic, kinship, religion, spirituality, value system. I went to anthropological sources, I have friends who are anthropologists, I spoke with Stanley forever--he's the dance boss, he was also the Catholic Deacon in the village, and was the Catholic spiritual leader, so he had the hat of both the traditional spiritual life and the Catholic spiritual life--he had both--and we had many conversations about Yup'ik spiritual world. It was out of that understanding that the film was shot and edited, and while the film doesn't speak to those things directly, I think it's accurate, in that Lenny and I had to do a lot of homework--we didn't just go out there as filmmakers and shoot pretty things for four months. We really had a very grounded understanding of Yup'ik culture. So very small decisions were made all the way along to gather an ethnography of their dance life.

Lenny and I had a number of rules which were: 1) We would not decide who would be interviewed, but we would go by general consensus. 2) If anyone wanted to not be filmed at any time, they could tell us to turn the cameras off. 3) If they changed their mind later, they could tell us not to use the material. Months later they could say 'don't use what you shot'. 4) They could decide the focus of the film, and if they didn't like what we were doing they could tell us to change it. 5) And we would use their language in the film with English subtitles. We would value their language.

Harkening back to Elder's early comments on the shortcomings of documentary film, valuing the Yup'ik language and creating a space for the people of Emmonak to be heard became a priority, and with that arose issues surrounding the translation of both words and culture. Translation and subtitling of The Drums of Winter took nearly a year to complete, as the filmmakers labored to preserve the integrity of the Yup'ik language, politics, and worldview.

S: I think this is very important to talk about. Lenny and I really wanted to get the language absolutely accurate, and have the translations absolutely accurate, because we knew the languages were being lost everywhere in Alaska, native languages are being lost. When we interviewed, we asked people to choose a language in which they would speak, because if you speak in your second language, you often sound unintelligent. Halting English I notice sometimes makes English speakers think that maybe you're unintelligent or something, and I can't stand that, so I just say 'what language are you most comfortable in?" and most of them chose to speak in Yup'ik, so I was interviewing in Yup'ik, and I don't speak Yup'ik very well at all--just a little bit. So a lot of times during the interview we had no idea what they were saying, and some filmmakers would have pulled their hair out about that, but I thought, actually, that it was a wonderful thing to take advantage of, and I would say to them "Speak to your descendants. Speak to the people who are going to come after you long after you're gone, and say what's important" and they knew that I didn't understand what they were talking about, so in a way they were not speaking to me. They're looking at the camera, but they were speaking to their own people, in their own language, knowing that I don't speak fluent Yup'ik. And that's a strange situation to be in as a filmmaker, but I liked entering into that. I felt that it really empowered them to speak about what was important, and since Lenny and I were really looking for their point of view and their voice, I felt very strongly that this was a good way to filter my own influence.

And then I would ask "Could you speak about this or that in English?" And if they were really much older and they spoke no English, I would have a relative translate for me. I found that maybe would put people more at ease than a formal translator, so if they had a grandchild around or a child or a relative--someone who might be around, I'd say 'could you stick around for the interview' and they would translate my questions. But I would say that most people under 50 spoke English as a second language very well, so it wasn't always an issue.

Then for the film, what we did was a double-blind translation process, where we would have a first translator have a go at it, and then without showing them that, we would have a second translator do it, because often they would have different takes on it, and also they would know the people in different ways. And there are two dialects in the village. So in all of our films, we've always had double-blind translation going on. Because translation is very subtle, but it can be very political, it's what makes us human--it's communication--and we didn't want to have any kind of quick thing.


L: That's something we always talked about--that we had to take the time to get it right. Each translation was a discussion of nuance and meaning, on a sentence level, because we always talked about, well, in 2030 years from now, when those kids look back, is it going to be right, or is it going to be rushed? And that's something we took very, very seriously. That's one of the reasons our films take so long to make and are just so time consuming, because that's, I think, one of the main values that drove us in this film was to really get it right. I think we took that on because we've seen all of those films where filmmakers didn't care about getting it right.

S: Yes, you often see foreign films and you know that the subtitles are wrong, and we really didn't want to do that. We felt that it was of equal importance to anything else in the film to have the language absolutely accurate. So after we would have our second translator, there were also words that the older people used that were so complex with multiple meanings, that even the translators would talk for an hour about what the word means. It's as if I said to you 'What does grace mean?' Could you answer me with a sentence? There were words that represented certain concepts that went to the whole value system of the Yup'ik culture. Like one word, [flaanoop]--it means outside, as opposed to inside, it means consciousness, it means cosmos, and it means the source of all being--so how do you translate that quickly? That's in a scene in the film when he's talking about how they would represent the cosmos with feathers hanging over the dancers long ago. So then we would get on the phone, and call up someone in the village and sometimes play the sentence back by telephone, just holding the receiver up, and the translator would get more ideas and would translate more.

After that was all done we had a very, very long detailed translation which did not work at all in a film, so then we would have to time the scenes and reduce the essence of the English subtitles--we tended to go to literal translations, but as anyone knows who's in the translation field, you can't just put literal translations up. We really wanted them to be poetic in English, to represent the poetry of the Yup'ik language, which is very poetic.

L: I think Sarah and I both had the same vision for this film. We wanted it first to be a film about intimacy--about this world of intimacy that the dance encompasses. Second, we wanted it to be a film about emotional landscape that the dance and that aspect of the culture exists on. And third, the information and facts. People often have asked me "Why didn't you translate the songs? Why didn't you subtitle the songs?" and that's a decision that we made to point the direction of the audience in terms of the intimacy that was going on in the room rather than reading the translation of the songs, which may or may not make sense in that context. The film has almost 500 subtitles in it, so it's already pretty reading-intensive.


This careful attention to translation and representation in the film has made The Drums of Winter a significant cultural artifact, vital in the preservation of Yup'ik language and culture, as well as a powerful tool for education, both for younger generations and those outside Yup'ik culture. In light of that, we talked about the participants" levels of awareness of serving as representatives of their community to the wider North American culture. Did the dancers in Emmonak have an understanding that people in the Lower 48 who knew nothing else about them would be seeing this--that this film might present the only information that a person in New Jersey or Texas ever had about Yup'ik culture?

L: Conceptually yes, but not, I think, in the real sense of what that actually meant. I don't think that changed what people said or the way they acted, or their sense of openness in front of the camera. I think from what people have said about this film, they have a certain sense of pride in the way their culture is represented in the film. So, I think that's satisfying and I think we did get it right on that level. And of course, we never expected that the film would be so successful or have such longevity.

In every film we've done, this issue of informed consent is very important and something we take seriously--to make sure that people understand that when they say yes, I'll talk to you, that everybody's going to see it, it might be on television, their relatives are going to see it, their enemies are going to see it, the people in the next village are going to see it, and that they really understand that. The film has gotten a great deal of use locally, within the villages, it's shown and shown and shown. Especially because some of the elders in there who are now gone, this film is the only surviving piece of visual history of them. It's become an historical artifact in ways that I never even thought about--there's so much in it that's historically important that it eclipses what's been left out. Clearly that film couldn't be made now--most of the people in it are dead. Looking at it now in the perspective of history and film and anthropology, I think that I'm often amazed that there is as much there as there is.

S: I think neither they nor Lenny and I were as aware of it as perhaps we should have been. I don't think any of us realized that the film would take an iconic place in 'what is Yup'ik culture' as an iconic representation of their culture. We didn't look that far. The elders who gave us permission, I think had the wisdom to understand that. I don't think Lenny and I understood it at all. I was shocked one day, years later, when I was teaching at the University of Alaska, and someone told me something--a Yup'ik student told me "well, this is what we do, this is what we believe' and I knew that she was quoting from our film, and it really saddened me because I had never realized that the control that I had in the editing room and as film director, I never really projected into the future thinking 'Oh my god, now we're setting the bar for what Yup'ik culture is' And she said it with complete ignorance that she had actually gotten the information from the film. She had that information and did not recognize where she had gotten it. I recognized it because I had constructed the film and that really saddened me. All of a sudden it made me understand cultural transmission a lot at a deeper level and understand what television and film is doing to the entire global world.


L: One of the things that really united Sarah and I in our vision in this film was that above all, the film was for them. They were our first audience and our most important audience, and the film had to respect that, and I think it does, as every film we've made does. And they love the film. Recently, there was a young Yup'ik guy here from that village who was a student at the University, who was not even born yet when we were making it, who called and wanted to meet me, because his grandfather is in the film. I was just astonished that he knew the film backwards and forwards, he knew every scene in the film. And he was very interested in the outs, and what other material we have.

S: And one hopes that Lenny and I had the integrity to not meddle with the knowledge that was being given when the elders were speaking and dancing, and everything that's being transmitted. We tried to stand aside, and that's were we could have done some damage if we tried to manipulate it too much and ask leading questions or put our own agenda in there too much. That's where it was really important that we had to trust that we hadn't tried to be tricky and educate her through what we thought was important. But I sleep well at night, knowing that we really tried to do the best we could and let the elders transmit their knowledge. It's very sad though, I know many young Yup'ik people know very little about their own culture. Today when I meet young teenagers, not all of them, but some of them, they don't know much. And the film is one of the things they can get that's not out of an anthropology book, and all of the people who had that knowledge have died. In the opening scene of Drums of Winter, when they're tuning their drums--throwing water on them to tighten up the skins--there's only one person alive today in that whole scene. The elders understood that, and that's why it was an extraordinary moment for me to experience the dialogue that went on in the village deciding whether to give us permission or not.

And that process of gaining permission hinged on recognizing key elements of the Yup'ik worldview--the community's collectivist nature lent itself to the avoidance of conflict and confrontation, in order to maintain balanced, harmonious interpersonal relationships. Elder recognized the need to create dialogue about the film in ways that operated within comfortable cultural norms for the people of Emmonak, and encouraged their participation in the decision-making process.

S: I started going door to door, and discussing the fact that I wanted to make a film on Eskimo Dancing. And when I would say Eskimo Dancing, that would mean various things to different people, and ! would say 'Well, what should I make a film on, and what would be the value of it?' I let it be known that I wanted to do this, but I didn't want to do it myself, but I wanted them to lead. So, I did this for a number of weeks, and people started having ideas about how it should be done, and what the questions were. And at that point, I showed some films that Lenny and I had made from other villages. People were very excited by our films, and immediately thought, "Well, those people whale hunt, but we do these other things." They got really excited about them, and started thinking about what would be possible in their village.

At this point, I thought we should have a community meeting, and the dialogue could really be productive. There was a strong objection to making the dance film among the young political leaders, men in their 40s. They were very suspicious of being exploited, and having their elders exploited, and they were very careful to investigate who would make money off this and whether they would be portrayed badly. There were some people who were really very much against it--they felt it was an outside venture coming in and taking advantage of them. I was really quite happy to hear these questions, because I thought they were really asking the right questions, because filmmakers do that.

What happened then was quite extraordinary. The dancer elders were always the most respected in the village. If you were a dancer, you had cache in the village, you were considered more traditional, more knowledgeable, you weren't plagued by alcohol abuse, so the dancers really were the leaders in the village. The older ones in their 70s and 80s began speaking in Yup'ik. I had no idea what they were saying. But they said that they very much wanted to do this film--that they had lived 80 years, and in their 80 years they had seen the white man come, they had seen airplanes come for the first time, they had seen their children go away to boarding school for years at a time and lose their language--that they had seen more change in their culture than anybody in the room, and they knew they wanted their lifestyle documented, and they believed that they could trust our process.

As it turned out, after the elders said that they wanted to go forward with the film, the younger leaders, who really were wonderful leaders--I really respected the younger ones--as I said they weren't that young, they were in their 40s--they got completely on board and we had no problem after that they were very willing to help us in every way. But it had been a heartfelt strong debate, with a lot of people speaking and a lot of strong feelings. I was very happy to see it happen because when you spend a lot of time and you go out and set up the logistics, you don't want to have these things come up later down the road. I also learned what was important to them and what we should avoid and emphasize and things like that.

The other big question I had at the time was that in the dance house, there was a strict rule that was no flashbulbs or movie lights could be in there because it's a sacred place and it would disrupt the feeling of the respect for the place. At the time, we were shooting positive film, reversal film, with a very low ASA, and I knew that we couldn't shoot the film unless we had movie lights in there. So I told them that--I wanted them to know that right up front in the beginning. And this was one of the reasons that the younger political leaders felt that it would be disrespectful to put movie lights in there and they didn't want to disrespect, at a deep level, the spirits--the spiritual creator. That they felt that it might bring bad fortune or something like that. The elders interpreted it as that if the whole community was behind the film that the spirits would understand this and they might even help us because we were doing it in a respectful manner it would not make an imbalance of the cosmos.


We talked about the impact of the camera's presence in the dancehall on the performance of Yup'ik culture, and the representations of dance that were filmed.

S: They come from a culture of performance, as you can see in the film. A hundred years ago, they danced with masks--they really understand performance. They were wonderful to work with and to film, because, other cultures, such as American culture, get very self conscious when you put the camera on them. They were very aware that we were filming at every moment, but because their culture values performance, because of this dance-mask culture, also because they live in small places. ... you notice that when they dance, they dance with not much expression on their faces, and that's because traditionally they had masks on, so they have replaced the masks with a kind of deadpan look. The women dance with their eyes downcast and the men look forward but there's not a lot of activity in their face. Not a lot of emotional coding is given. And when they actually do break down and laugh and do something at the end kind of funny, that's a special moment because they break character in a sense and they themselves come through the character and everybody laughs and appreciates it, but they can't do that all the time.

I think in many ways, and I guess because they're all dancers, and have grown up dancing since they were four years old, their awareness of the camera is there all the time, but you can't read it if you're a non-Yup'ik. It looks like they're not aware of the camera. And it's a mistake that a lot of non-Yup'ik people make like "Oh, they were unsophisticated, they didn't realize they were on camera so they did things." They always knew they were on camera, and I love working with Yup'ik people for that reason. It's like working with very hip media people today. They were very, very savvy and I thought incredibly sophisticated in the way they would continue to maintain the look of normality. They didn't get all self-conscious because they had control. The people in almost all of native Alaska have this inner strength where they really have control over their representations of themselves, which I find to be enormous self-control and consciousness or awareness.

Elder's understandings and experiences, along with Kamerling's own familiarity with Yup'ik dance, allowed the two filmmakers to work effectively in filming the dance within the confines of the hall--anticipating key shots, and focusing on valued performers. Their complex preparations for each night's shooting in the small space became part of the performative environment of the dance, and created unanticipated bonds with the dancers.

S: We had nine or ten very specific lights that we had to put up every single night, and we had to take them down at midnight because they would have the steam bath the next day with the hot fire in there and it would've burned them up. It took us about two hours to prepare every night. And we had to push the lights on this dog sled which we had no dogs or snow machine, and we had to push it quite a distance, and sometimes it was snowing ... so it took up a lot of time just getting set up every night, and then they would come. We had to rig electricity from a nearby house that we paid for. This nice family let us wire into their electricity because there was only a bare bulb in the dance house. Because the room was so small and we wanted our footage to match from night to night, we were very particular about where we put it. And I remember that the elders began on really cold nights, when it was below zero, to sit near the lights. They didn't have any heat source in there, all they had was the fire that they lit for their steam bath would go in the logs and would remain in the logs, but after a while it would get cold, and if you were dancing you'd be warm, but if you were just sitting there, you'd get cold. They loved the warmth of the film lights. Once or twice we would make a mistake when we were hanging our lights, and they would sit there and say "Oh no, you put that one in the wrong place." We were like the warm up show--watching Sarah and Lenny dress the lights. They'd sit there and they'd laugh, and tell us where to put them.


These unguarded moments helped the filmmakers" relationships with the dancers deepen, which, in turn, allowed them access to insider knowledge and key figures in the community.

S: So we began to film, and what we wanted to do was show the learning of a dance. In the beginning, they'll dance a new dance. Every twenty-one dances they're all new, so they all have to learn them. We wanted to show the progression up to the potlatch. People told us who to value and who to concentrate on--who were the good dancers. Stanley was coming to our house a lot, and encouraging us, and telling us who to watch out for. So, in the dancing, that was coming along okay, and the interviews, people were beginning to open up to us and saying 'You know, you should really talk to Agnes Waski--the woman who talks about her father who hunted bears, and about the dance fans and the feathers in the dance fans. Every single person in the village told us we should talk to her. She was very important--a dance leader--and had eighty-five grandchildren, and was extremely important as a matriarch in the village.

While critical to Yup'ik cultural identity, dance in The Drums of Winter appears to be dominated by the young and the old, with a distinct absence of the generations in between. Kamerling and I talked about this, and the revitalization of Eskimo Dancing in the years that have followed.

L: One of the things sometimes an observant viewer will say, "I see old people, I see young people, but I don't see anybody in their 20s and 30s" So yeah, that group is not in the film. Not only was that the generation where people are in the midst of having families, but that's also a generation that went to boarding schools and was sort of the in-between culture. But now it's very much in style and part of the culture for young people of that age group to dance and participate. The intervillage potlatch, which used to be called the "inviting in" feast--these were reciprocal gift-giving events--those have given way to regional events where people from a lot of villages come together and perform dances, so the tone has changed and the meaning has changed. The kinds of songs they do have changed. But it's continued on. At the end of "Drums ...," we have this very pessimistic prediction by the three young college girls about how it's going to fade away, but the opposite has happened, it's been kind of a renaissance, but certainly the meaning, the tone, and that sense of intimacy about it has changed a lot. But it also speaks about the resilience of the dance as an expression of culture, in that it's flexible enough to change and to accommodate very rapid changes in society and in the culture


Producing a final version of The Drums of Winter was as complex as the symbols, ideas, and relationships the film represented. From start to finish, the project took ten years to complete, due, in part, to finances, the filmmakers' deepening understandings of the film and Yup'ik dance, and their evolving sophistication as filmmakers. The content of the film itself, however, also presented challenges.

L: When we got back after our months out there, it became clear to us that we re ally didn't have enough for a film--that it was a very lopsided film that was concerned with dance and that it needed broadening and needed deepening.

S: That first edit we had, which I spent a year and a half doing, was very much about the specifics of dancing. It had a lot more analysis of dance movement and micro movement in dancing, and it had the songs translated, and it was very focused on just the dancing. We felt it was very boring and it didn't have a depth to it. We were tired of seeing films that only showed a small kind of superficial take on culture. I saw films on voodoo all the time, and I thought they were lunatics because they would sensationalize the dancing and wouldn't integrate it with the larger culture. We didn't want to make that mistake, so after we worked for a year and a half on the film, we thought it was a very good music and dance film, and very boring, and too focused. So we went back and completely took it apart and did all the research on the missionaries. We couldn't go back and reshoot because we didn't have money to reshoot.

L: That's when I went to do archival work at the Catholic and Moravian archives and found amazing stuff, and we decided to include that in the film, with the consent of the people in the community. Especially elders who had been to the Catholic mission schools and really loved those old priests. Some of the material was very, very strong

S: At that point, I think that I was really suffering as a filmmaker. Verite techniques were just not suiting me. I wanted to bring history in, but verite limits you to only being in the present. I was struggling with how do you bring history in? How, as a filmmaker do you put in concepts when you don't want to just have someone say it in an interview. I was struggling with all these issues and we found the letters and said 'how are we going to use these?' We thought, 'well, we'll get people to act the voices out.'

L: I think it adds a great deal to the film--it helps provide a kind of dramatic structure for the film that was missing before. And also, just by good fortune, while we were editing, four young women were going to school here at the University of Alaska, and we were able to get them to come over for dinner one night and talk about their first dance and what they thought about the future of the whole thing, and that became an important segment in the film as well.

S: We shot them in my small cabin. We expanded the focus of the film and tried to make it more comprehensive and make it more emotionally moving, and that took another two years. It really changed. I think it probably would have been ethnographically more interesting to musicologists and dance anthropologists, the first cut, but not to the rest of the world, so we abandoned that first cut.


L: I think our first version of Drums was about six hours long, and then there was a slow whittling down, making it more seamless, more compressed, more compact until we had a length that worked and that we could afford and live with. And then you run out of time and it's done.

The true test of any collaborative endeavor is at completion--in this case, whether the film would be well-received by the community of Emmonak. Would the dancers and other" contributors see themselves and their input well-represented in the final product? Elder spoke about the film's initial screening in tire community.

S: We took it out to the village and showed it and everyone loved it. I was very nervous, and I thought 'oh my god, maybe I've left something out or I've not put somebody in or I've disrespected someone' but I think that we had really done our homework and we were hoping that it would be successful but you never know.

I took it out to have its world premiere and none of the projectors worked, and I had to spend a day pulling apart three school projectors, cannibalizing them, and putting them together until finally I got one projector working. I was terrified because there were announcements all over town, and I couldn't get any projector to work. I showed it and people wouldn't leave the community hall, they just said 'we have to see it again' right then and there. I think we all got home at 2:00 in the morning that night. It was really quite exciting. People loved it and immediately wanted copies, and by then we could make VHS copies, and I think we distributed something like 350 copies to the village. People could recite the film by heart, they'd watch it a lot. And I think it was one of the first pieces of media they could have in their own homes. VHS cameras were just coming about and not many people had them at all, so people really couldn't see themselves. There were no home movies and things like that. It was very exciting. I don't think in all of my career I've ever felt so satisfied and full of gratitude as that moment when I showed it in the village. I've won a lot of awards and I'm very thrilled about the National Film Registry, in many ways it's the greatest award a filmmaker can aspire to in America, but I have to say that the evening that I showed Drums of Winter in Emmonak was probably the one moment that I've been the happiest in my filmmaking career because of the response of the village. It was overwhelming.


Each year, the National film Preservation Board--which is comprised of directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, scholars, archivists, and others--advises the Library of Congress on the selection of 25 "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" films for the National Film Registry. The Registry not only implements preservation plans for each of the films, but serves to showcase the breadth and diversity of America's film heritage. Films named to the Registry must be 10 years old, but treed not be feature-length, nor had a theatrical release. Having The Drums of Winter named to the National Film Registry is a remarkable honor for Elder and Kamerling, and will provide invaluable recognition for the film, as well. Not only has it reawakened interest in "'Drums ...," but as Kamerling points out, the honor has broader implications for ethnographic film, in general.


L: For a film of this nature to be named to the National Film Registry amongst all of these other Hollywood classics means a certain kind of acceptance of this kind of film that wasn't there before ... I don't know what other ethnographic films have been included in the registry, but I would say probably not many. Very few documentaries are named every year. And that a film about an aspect of Yu'pik culture can get that kind of recognition shows that that question of 'what is American cinema,' 'what is American culture,' has broken the old bonds and they're looking farther and wider, and that's very, very encouraging.

I've always felt if you challenge an audience, the audience will meet you halfway and they'll remember the film. Look at The Fast Runner, which came out recently--an Inuit-produced drama on a traditional story, done in Inuit, in their language, people were lining up around the block to see it, and it indicated that audiences are hungry for films that are challenging, that make them think, and they will plunk down their $10 to go and see them, if they're given the chance. Getting a film like Drums of Winter on the National Registry moves that forward a bit. It creates more awareness and more opportunity for people to see these kinds of films, and maybe it even moves some of the closed and conservative and traditional venues like public television forward just a little bit. Maybe there will be some openings and opportunities there for the filmmakers of the future that aren't there today.

Being named to the Registry means the film will still be around and be seen in 100 years, and I can't think of anything more satisfying or wonderful for a filmmaker than to know that their film's going to be around that long.

The two fihnmakers are also encouraged about the preservation provided by the Registry for their film as an artifact of American cinematic history. Elder explained that although Drums of Winter still enjoys a great deal of exposure at film festivals and symposia, high quality DVD and VHS copies of the film do not exist, and the film's negative is fading. Her goal is to regain the best quality possible for the film. She and Kamerling also hope that the recognition received by Drums ... will lead to preservation for all of their films.

S: We have 11 films and we'd like to preserve--not only Drums of Winter, but all of our films. Hopefully, Drums of Winter will be the prize child and can make the way for films to get preservation.

L: What I've been doing with most of my time over the last five years or so, is dealing with the massive collection of material that we've produced over the last 35 years, all of the sound, which is still largely on quarter-inch tape. We have hundreds of rolls of original sound--much of it containing material that we could not use--interviews and situations with people who are long gone. As time goes on, the historical value of this material, some of it never seen or heard by the public, just increases. The film, as well--all of our unused film, which is a massive amount--has taken on real historical value. So I've been putting a great deal of energy into making sure this survives as a collection, and doesn't end up in boxes in some flooded basement somewhere. This gives me nightmares, because basically, it's our life's work--the main body of work that Sarah and I produced-and in addition, the films that I produced after I was no longer working with Sarah.

So, in my position as Curator of Film at the University of Alaska museum, that's what I'm doing now. I never intended to take on this role, because I am foremost and principally a filmmaker, but I just started to think about what we were going to do with all this stuff as it became more valuable. I had to turn my attention to making sure it survives--archived and catalogued and hopefully, at least partially digitized and available for researchers and for students, so it's accessible, as well.

But accessibility, for a film like The Drums of Winter, must mean more than traditional archiving at a University, removed from its original con text and the individuals whose lives it chronicles, and Kamerling recognizes the importance of making material readily available to the community.

I'm working on a project of digitizing sound material, and repatriating, so to speak, interviews with elders back to the communities--back to the villages where they were originally recorded. Nobody's heard these; some of them were recorded 25 years ago. Some of the newer generations-kids who are in their teens and twenties now--don't even speak the language that their parents and great grandparents spoke. And that's when we see the work that we did, the years that we spent translating all of this stuff so diligently, really pay off.
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