Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale: An interview with Kiliii Yuyan
Filmmaker Kiliii Yuyan has been a friend of DPReview's for several years. He spoke at our PIX2015 event in Seattle and joined us later that same year in what was then called Barrow, Alaska (now known as Utqiaġvik) for a long-form video shoot.
Since then, Kiliii has returned to Alaska several times, working with the people and communities of the north slope, and his new film, 'Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale' premiered earlier this year at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). Anaiyyun: Prayer for the Whale is a short documentary film that tells the story of an Iñupiaq whaling crew in northern Alaska.
Since its premier at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) in spring, Anaiyyun has been shown all over the world, and is currently being featured in the National Geographic Short Films Showcase. We caught up with Kiliii recently, and asked him to explain more about the project.
What's the new film about?
It's focused on the spirituality of whaling. It's intended to give you the perspective of the people up there and a sense of how very different the world of the whaler is, and how different the culture is. To put you on the ice, and let you absorb the beauty of the arctic. I like to say that being on the sea ice is a bit like being on the open ocean. There are long interminable stretches of boredom and silence, quiet. It's very peaceful but those moments are punctuated with moments of sheer terror.
|On the Arctic Ocean, Iñupiat paddle their umiaq skinboat. Spring whaling by umiaq is made possible by the shorefast sea ice. As the sea ice gets thinner each spring from a warming climate, traditional whaling becomes increasingly challenging.|
That's how the film is, too. There's a lot of quiet observation, time just being there, but it's broken up by moments where the sea ice collapses, and polar bears appear. I really wanted to do something experimental and introduce the indigenous perspective. It's not a typical Hollywood-style structure. It puts you on the ice, and puts whaling into context inside that culture.
This is the latest piece that's come out of a long-term relationship you've been cultivating with the communities of the North Slope in Alaska. How did it all begin?
Well if I remember rightly, you asked me to join you on a video shoot up there a few years ago! But the reason I wanted to go there is that it's the only place where skin on frame boats are still being used, outside of Greenland. And the Iñupiat are a role model culture for northern indigenous peoples. People look at the Iñupiat like 'how did they do it? How did they keep their culture so traditional yet have so much prosperity?' They're more isolated than most places, but there are many places just as remote which haven't done as well for themselves.
The Iñupiat haven't avoided modernity at all - they've embraced it
I originally went there thinking that the culture was so traditional because the people had somehow magically avoided modernity. But over time what I've discovered is that they haven't avoided modernity at all - they've embraced it. But because they were smart, they managed to keep their culture and its traditions alive by placing a lot of importance on them, and reintroducing it into their education system.
It's hard to think about all those things when you can't eat. When there's no food on the table, and the ice is getting thin and the whales are leaving and there are all these massive changes. It's hard to hold on. They do it by embracing modernity in a smart way, and as a result they've retained one of the most beautiful cultures on the planet while still being successful. Despite the fact that Christianity has changed the Iñupiaq culture probably more than anything, the idea of the gift of the whale is old. Much much older than Christianity, right back to the shamanistic tradition, and it's still alive.
Kiliii Yuyan is an indigenous Nanai/Hézhè photographer and journalist, based in Seattle.
His clients include The Nature Conservancy and National Geographic.
Are you hoping to change the way that outsiders think about that culture, and the culture of whaling?
This isn't a political film. My intent is to give people the indigenous perspective. It's fine to have films that are overtly political, but the thing that's often missing is the indigenous viewpoint. Because the population is so low, indigenous peoples in the US and Canada just don't have much of a voice. For the most part, stories told about indigenous peoples are told by colonizers, not by those who have been colonized, and you can really see the difference.
I've shown this film to people who have spent a lot of time either with me on the North Slope or people who've been around the Iñupiaq culture a lot and they get it - it makes sense to them. But then I'll show it to someone who is used to seeing western films and they find it harder to watch because it doesn't follow the standard format.
I hope that outsiders who watch this film will understand that there is no single right way to live.
You've said that the communities of the North Slope are at ground zero for climate change - how is that affecting them?
Well, the truth is they're figuring it out. The Iñupiat have a lot of agency, they're an extremely competent people, and Alaska has the kind of legal structure where hopefully they'll be able to mitigate a lot of the problems. The Yup'ik communities on the west coast of Alaska are not so lucky— they are not as economically prosperous.
With a film like this it's easy to fall into the romanticism of the Arctic
What kind of feedback have you had from those communities?
The highest praise I've received so far was having an Inuk look at it and tell me that his kids need to see it. With a film like this it's easy to fall into the romanticism of the Arctic, but when I've shown it to locals who grew up with this stuff and it's their everyday, that kind of feedback means a lot.
My hope is that the young people of those indigenous communities will be able to see the film and take inspiration from it.
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