Documentary about young Gambell hunter screens at AFN
On a windy, cloudy day among floating chunks of sea ice off the coast of Gambell, young hunter Chris Apassingok races toward a bowhead with his family’s whaling crew. So begins the new documentary “One With The Whale.”
A similar scene played out without cameras around in 2017. That spring, Apassingok at 16-years-old became the youngest person in Gambell to harpoon a bowhead. Towing hundreds of pounds of food for his community, Apassingok returned to shore a provider.
KNOM reported on the happy occasion. The Anchorage-based Alaska Dispatch News republished the story. But in the age of social media, the news didn’t stay in Alaska. It traveled across the world—and into animal rights activist circles. The notorious anti-whaling activist Paul Watson posted cruel words for Apassingok. Hundreds of death threats and racist abuse poured in for Apassingok. He became depressed and dropped out of school.
“One With The Whale” documents the aftermath of that media firestorm, as well as the everyday challenges for a family trying to keep its traditions alive in a rapidly changing world.
The film screened last Wednesday evening just as the annual of convention of the Alaska Federation of Natives was about to kick off at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage.
Apassingok said he was nervous ahead of the screening. It was the first time he was seeing the almost-finished product. Filmmakers Jim Wickens and Peter Chelkowski, who joined the family for a Q&A after the screening, said they still need some time for the film to be completed.
Wickens shared that he “started off as the enemy.” He used to be animal rights activist who would conduct undercover operations and film investigations for Animal Planet. Wickens said he had a lightbulb moment while filming in the Pacific. He met fathers and sons who got caught shark finning who explained that they were engaging in the practice for survival; there were no longer any fish where they lived.
“There is a racist narrative in the way in which conservation issues, particularly hunting issues in the wild, are portrayed in the media around the world,” Wickens said. “And so often, it’s marginalized communities and people of color, Indigenous communities who are attacked whilst carrying out subsistence traditional activities.”
Wickens said he hoped the film could help educate people from his own former community of activists. The filmmakers hope that their work will be relevant to Alaskans, too.
Nome’s Marjorie Kunaq Tahbone advised the filmmakers to help ensure that they were telling a story that was honest and respectful. Tahbone also told them that she saw great potential for the film to be used as an educational tool locally.
“The interesting thing is, we originally thought the film was going to be for the Lower 48, we thought it was going to be for the world,” Chelkowski said. “And we screened it for Kunaq and she watched the movie and said, ‘Guys, I want to bring this to all Alaskan villages, to all the schools, because it deals with all these issues—drug addiction being one of them, suicide being the other—that sometimes are hard to talk about.”
The Anchorage International Film Festival will screen “One With The Whale” at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub on Dec. 9.