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'We Breathe Again' documentary takes aim at suicide among Native Alaskans (+VIDEO)

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

A group of Alaskans and a New York filmmaker have teamed up to tackle one of Alaska’s most challenging social issues — suicide — and have garnered some national support. The documentary film “We Breathe Again” focuses on both the wounds and healing taking shape in Alaska Native communities. Its small team of creators recently received a Native American Public Television grant, funded through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The grant will cover approximately 30 percent of the film’s budget, said Executive Producer Evon Peter, a budget that has been largely donation based and is still seeking support. The grassroots project recently closed its Kickstarter.com fundraising push, which raised nearly $20,000 from 293 donors.

The film project began with New York cinematographer Marsh Chamberlain and his Inupiaq cousin, Nathan Nagaruk. Chamberlain was moved by how deeply suicide had impacted his cousin’s life and community, and was inspired to create a film exploring the topic.

Matching visions

In 2010, Chamberlain met Peter and his wife Enei. “Both of our missions and visions matched each other,” said Peter.

Peter has been leading suicide prevention and wellness development in Bering Strait and Arctic communities for three years. He has been guiding youth leadership programs in Alaska for a decade. Peter leads wellness camps in many Maniilaq communities as well, a relationship he hopes will carry over to the film by Maniilaq becoming an underwriter.

“My work and the film project kind of go hand in hand,” Peter said. Peter is Gwichin and a former Chief of the Neetsaii Gwich’in. He has represented indigenous interests at the United Nations and the Arctic Council Forum.

The dialogue he already supports in many of the communities he works within, Peter said, lends itself well to this film project. By creating and maintaining strong relationships in a many places, he has found a population ready to speak to the strengths and struggles of Native Alaskan life.

“A lot of people have been reaching out just personally and sharing their stories,” Peter said. “We’re so grateful that people are willing to be as courageous as they are, to confront some of the more challenging issues facing our communities. It feels good to know that there are so many people, within each community, that are taking the steps to heal themselves, to become stronger and more grounded, and to also be there for the others in the community around them.”

Tragedy and healing

Individuals featured in the documentary speak to the hardships and healing surrounding Alaska’s social issues.

“Yes it’s going to challenge some of the unhealthier behaviors,” Peter said. “But those need to be challenged. If things that are not good for our people go unchecked, then bad things come of them.”

The film discusses the heartbreak caused by social breakdown, but also highlights social traditions by following a few main characters through the daily activities of life in an Alaska Native community. They take the discussion into schools, out on hunting trips and into the personal experiences of individual Alaskans.

In exploring the tragedy of suicide, Peter said, there is also opportunity to begin the process of healing.

“It’s reweaving the cultural, social (and) spiritual fabric of our people,” Peter said. “We’re looking at this work of healing and prevention long term. It didn’t happen overnight, what has happened among our com- munities. It’s been a couple hundred-year process of some of the breakdown...it’s going to take us a while to recover from that.”

The film’s creators believe that the end result isn’t the only benefit to creating the documentary. The dialogue on the way there is just as vital.

“It’s how we’re making this film that’s having an impact too,” Peter said.

200 hours of film

Right now the team is in the midst of filming, and will be through February. So far their small group has made stops in Elim, Nome, Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Copper River Valley, Barrow and Kotzebue.

They just returned from a camp near Selawik, Peter said, and will likely be moving on to Buckland next week.

When all is said and done, the group will have upwards of 200 hours of film. That will have to be edited down to a one-hour television broadcast, and a roughly hour and a half long feature film.

Peter hopes the feature-length documentary will premier at a national film festival — such as the Tribeca film festival — so it can reach a broader audience.

The premier process will likely begin in January of 2014.

They are also considering creating a special sound track for the film with Alaska musicians. One songwriter approached Peter with an idea. The musician wrote a song years before reflecting on the loved ones he’d lost to suicide, but he had never recorded it because of how intensely emotional it was for him. Upon hearing about the We Breathe Again project, however, the writer told Peter he’d like to record it so it could be considered for inclusion in the film.

The project is expanding in other ways, as Peter and his team also consider creating short films that can be used as educational materials.

While the long process and sensitive subject matter, Peter said, this project has quickly turned into an emotional and time-consuming journey.

“But it’s worth it,” Peter said. “I feel good about what it is we’re doing and how we’re doing it. I have a feeling in my heart that this film is going to make a difference.”

Hannah Heimbuck is a reporter at the Arctic Sounder. Used with permission.