Film explores eroding Alaska village

December 10, 2008 

"The Last Days of Shishmaref" -- perhaps as close and detailed a look at the lives of the Inupiaq Eskimo of northwest Alaska as has been recorded in 35mm color film -- has a clear agenda: Move the town.

It's difficult to watch the 88-minute documentary (as a packed house did at the Anchorage International Film Festival on Sunday) without sympathy for the villagers of the Chukchi Sea coastal community and their desire to relocate the entire population of 600 people a few dozen miles inland, where a new village would be constructed.

They want to move because Shishmaref, a settlement in a cluster of wood-frame houses and other buildings standing on a sandy barrier island five miles from the mainland, is literally being washed out to sea a few feet every year.

Director Jan Louter of the Netherlands told the audience following Sunday's screening that the villagers "have been called the first victims of global warming" and described them as too poor to protect themselves from the impending doom, a point his film makes exceedingly well.

The none-too-subtle implication is that the U.S. government must help them by paying for the move. Given that the cost would be staggering -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- the sympathetic but cynical observer might say, Yeah, and good luck!

Louter and his crew photographed the villagers with great respect and intimacy. It isn't until we're perhaps three-fourths into the documentary that the issues of erosion and relocation come up in any big way. Before that, we get only an occasional statement related to global climate disruption.

Instead, we visit for a while with the families whose daily struggles we observe up close and personal, who admit us into their lives with such trust in our essential good will.

They have much to tell us. They still will seem exotic to those of us who take our urban lifestyles for granted. It seems impossible, for example, not to come away with the feeling that "The Last Days of Shishmaref" gives us, at bottom, an unflinching portrait of life as nearly unending toil, with the potential for life-ending disaster a constant companion.


Peter Porco views movies in Anchorage and blogs at adn.com/greenroom.

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