Academic journal article Post Script

Ethnographic Documentary Filmmakers Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling: An Interview

Academic journal article Post Script

Ethnographic Documentary Filmmakers Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling: An Interview

Article excerpt

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. …

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