Dmitry Trakovsky wasn't quite sure what he'd seen when he visited Alaska last August. The 26-year-old moviemaker from California had gotten on the art film map with his first feature documentary, "Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky," which premiered at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2009.
Now he had a not-particularly-defined notion of connecting his Russian heritage and the poetic sensibility of the late Glenn Gould's Canadian radio documentary, "The Idea of North," sometimes described as an "oral tone poem."
"I thought, Why don't I go up north?" Trakovsky recalled. "I'm Russian. It's somewhere in my blood. I guess I was trying to go to Alaska to see if there was one indigenous person I could find who still spoke Russian."
He found much more during the annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Herman on Spruce Island near Kodiak.
"A Yup'ik priest was being ordained. His family had come in from the village. It was a beautiful moment, very moving, a certain spirituality coming from within. I hadn't seen that happen before," he said.
The same priest asked Trakovsky to translate letters his grandfather had written in Russian. "It was an old form of the language, from the time of the Czars," Trakovsky said.
Everywhere he turned, the Californian was stunned by "the collage of cultures."
"Seeing elder Lucille Antowock-Davis dressed in her traditional Alutiiq clothes with the Orthodox cross as part of her identity was fascinating for me," he said. "Seeing two cultures melding in a harmonious way. Even visiting the villages around Kodiak and hearing about their troubles and how the spiritual aspect of Orthodoxy relates to that. It was really unbelievable to me that you had this going on in American territory."
He even found a few elders who did know some Russian, at least a few words or songs.
Trakovsky is now hoping to make a film about Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska, with the working title of "Arctic Cross." An online version titled "Journey into Orthodox Alaska," intended as a promotional video to help raise funds for the project, includes footage taken during the pilgrimage. But he doubts that much of it will make it into the final cut. His trip to Kodiak made him realize that he will need to head farther off the Marine Highway system and into the Bush.
"From the moment I met the Yup'ik priest, I wanted to go to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta," he said.
That part of the project will take money and time.
Trakovsky is more than familiar with the demands. Born in Moscow, he came to Los Angeles with his parents and sister when he was 3 years old. As a young adult, he planned to become a doctor.
"I was doing pre-med when one of my professors saw that I had an inclination toward film and suggested that I should do some sort of creative project."
The project "snowballed into a life commitment."
His debut film gathered interviews from people who had known Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovky, whom Ingmar Bergman called "the greatest" director, "one who invented a new language."
Tarkovsky, whose films include "Solaris," "Stalker" and "The Sacrifice," was known for "long takes that allowed some sort of spirituality," Trakovsky said. The Russian master died young in 1986.
He was also, in a way, responsible for bringing Trakovsky to Alaska. While making the film about the filmmaker, the Californian visited the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery in Platina, Calif. He was speaking with the abbot about his subject when a brother overheard them and piped up, "I became a monk because of Tarkovsky."
The comment stuck with Trakovsky. He took a closer look at the patron saint of the monastery. "I began to hear a lot about the pilgrimage (to Spruce Island) and the historical aspect of the church in Alaska, which I found rather rare. This influence coming from the west (i.e. Russia) is a phenomena that is kind of unique in American history."
Trakovsky's "Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky" has been widely admired by fans of artistic cinema around the world. Later this week, around what would have been Tarkovsky's 80th birthday, April 4, Trakovsky will be attending screenings of that film in the Midwest.
And undoubtedly beating the drum for "Arctic Cross." He has already solicited money through online Kickstarter campaigns and the United States Artist website. Students in the Russian Culture Club at the University of Texas in Arlington have held book sales to raise funds for it.
The photos published today are also intended to spread the word. They were taken during the annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Herman on in August 2011.
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.