trails . . . ACTION!
captures highs, lows of running the Iditarod
A Far Distant Place will premiere in Alaska
at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Anchorage Museum of History
and Art. Bouvrie, Plettner and, possibly, Williams will attend.
Cost is $5 per person.
By SANDI GERJEVIC
Daily News reporter
About 1 oclock in the morning, Mike Nosko emerges from the
darkened Iditarod Trail, a frost-stiffened, down-coated wilderness
traveler. He guides his sled dogs to a halt, and as camera lights
find his face, an Iditarod checkpoint volunteer asks his name.
Nosko responds, eyes fixed absently. When asked if hell be
staying long, the musher shakes his head no and then says yes. As
he begins his checkpoint chores, Nosko moves with the slow-motion
resignation of the long-distance musher.
The scene is one of the best in a new documentary film, Iditarod
A Far Distant Place by Alice Dungan Bouvrie,
to premiere in Alaska on Wednesday at the Anchorage Museum of History
Bouvrie, an independent filmmaker from the Boston area, has been
drawn to such diverse subjects as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
accident and Boston au pairs. She tackled the Iditarod in 1997,
sparked by a Siberian husky named Kenzie.
Bouvrie knew nothing of huskies but acquired Kenzie a few years
ago at the request of her teenage son, Lukas. The boys hankering
for the animal would lead him to raise and race sled dogs on the
New England mushing circuit. In the summer of 1996, Lukas, then
16, came north to hire on as a handler for Nosko. Her sons
experience intrigued Bouvrie, who came to visit the following summer.
When I went up there, I was so impressed with the
organization of the kennel and how clean it was and especially the
relationship that Mike had with his dogs, Bouvrie said.
In her career, Bouvrie, 49, has worked as a directors assistant
on feature films like The Witches of Eastwick
and Field of Dreams. Shes rubbed elbows
with stars like Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner.
In Alaska, however, the first time she had a chance to meet well-known
musher Susan Butcher, she shrank away in shyness.
I saw her, but I just couldnt bring myself to
go up and meet her, Bouvrie said. Id
never been so excited in my life to meet anybody as I was to meet
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Iditarod musher Mike Williams speaks about his motivation
in promoting sobriety.
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Bouvrie, a part-time student of intercultural relations at Lesley
College in Cambridge, Mass., was intrigued by the Native legacy
of sled dogs, by the historic aspects of the race and by the poetic
and dependent relationship between dogs and humans. That men and
women compete equally in the race impressed her. So did a lack of
emphasis on age.
You can be young and strong and muscle the sled around
and go (without) sleep more easily, she said. But
the people who are winning are people who are experienced, wise
mushers. And I just love that.
While visiting Nosko in Wasilla that first summer, Bouvrie rushed
into Anchorage and rented a video camera to get shots of the musher
at work. She intended to provide Nosko and his wife, Tracey, a promotional
film about their kennel. But not long after, while attending a film
conference in New York City, Bouvrie was amazed by how people responded
when she talked about the Iditarod.
Everybodys eyes would just light up,
she said. Heads turned. The more I talked about it,
the more it started to sound great.
Preproduction for a documentary began that fall. At first, the
film was to be about just Nosko, but it evolved into an on-the-trail
story of three Iditarod mushers Nosko, Mike Williams and
Lynda Plettner. Williams, a popular Native musher, is known for
his efforts to promote sobriety. Plettner is an upbeat, experienced
racer and trainer from Willow. In the 1998 race, all three hoped
to place in the money.
During five trips to Alaska, Bouvrie and a cameraman banked training
runs, vet checks and background interviews. Getting permission to
film the mushers while they raced was more difficult.
We agreed ahead I would find the right time to approach
them, she said. It was clear, sometimes,
it wasnt the right time.
Bouvrie hired a pilot to touch down ahead of her subjects at selected
checkpoints. After a while, she felt the three began to look forward
to seeing a familiar face.
After long lonely hours on the trail, in a way, I think
it was comforting to them to see me again and again and again,
From her kennel in Big Lake, Plettner said she has seen the film
and is pleased with Bouvries work.
Mushing is hardly ever shown from the happy camping
aspect, you know? she said. The filming
is always of the winners.
(Bouvrie) did a very good job of
showing how this is a family thing. These are our animals. These
are our pets. Were dog mushers. Its a lifestyle.
Plettner, 48, is a bright spot in the film, a perfect triangle
point to Williams and Nosko.
She just chirps her way right up the trail,
Plettner has raced in eight Iditarods but says this year will be
her last. Her husband, Dan Govoni, whom Plettner married in Bouvries
film, has his own Iditarod ambitions, and Plettner will step back
While Nosko was agreeable to the film, he later told Bouvrie he
probably would not consent to such a project again. In 1998, when
injuries and mistakes caused the Wasilla musher to drop several
dogs, Bouvrie captured his frustration and disappointment on film.
In one scene, Nosko phones his wife from Unalakleet to tell her
he intends to scratch. To get the shot, Bouvrie asked Nosko if she
and her partner, cameraman Tom Curran, could film just five minutes
of his conversation to get a closing scene for his race. Then they
would leave him in privacy, they told him. He agreed.
I just thought hed sit there on the phone and
shoot the breeze until we left, Bouvrie said.
While the camera rolls, however, Nosko painfully delivers his news.
The moment is difficult to watch, both because its private
and because Nosko has been characterized as a hard-driving musher
with a dream of winning the Iditarod. As a kid, when asked what
he wanted to be when he grew up, Noskos answer was: In
Another strong scene in the film is when Williams takes an impromptu
testimonial along the trail a villager describes how alcohol
nearly destroyed his life. Williams, a trained counselor, listens
intently. Affirmations like this happen all the way to Nome, said
the musher. Last week, Williams was en route to Big Lake with dogs
to train for this years Iditarod, which starts Saturday.
Williams own story is a haunting one. In the film, he describes
how each of his six brothers died alcohol-related deaths. His 1998
run was particularly poignant he said he carried the spirit
of his daughter with him in his sled. Timatheen, who often made
honorary Iditarod starts with Williams in Anchorage, died in a four-wheeler
accident at age 9.
Williams called Bouvries film moving.
Its kind of emotional on my part because of my
own personal life, he said.
Iditarod cost about $200,000 to make. Bouvrie
had no major backers and worked on a shoestring, piecing together
a budget through fund-raisers, donations and grants. Even her hometown,
Visalia, Calif., chipped in.
Back in suburban Boston, Bouvrie lives in a second-floor apartment.
On the Iditarod Trail, she slept on the floor of a high-school gym,
in a vacant office building, in a city hall and in a hut at Rainy
Pass with seven men and no running water. In Akiak, Williams
home, she found seal oil delicious and polished off several helpings.
She was grateful for the generosity she encountered in the Bush,
a willingness to offer rides and loan vehicles.
The filmmakers low-key approach and two-person budget worked
well, she said, allowing her to gather interviews without hubbub.
Iditarod, completed this winter, is narrated
by an old acquaintance, Susan Sarandon. After learning that Williams
listens to tape recordings of Gwichin fiddler Bill Stevens
on the trail, Bouvrie included Stevens and Alaska flute player Tim
Crawford in the soundtrack.
In Mushing magazine this month, reviewer Leonard Kamerling called
Bouvries film inspiring and deeply felt.
I feel that no other film or media story has come close
to revealing the true nature and spirit of the race the way this
film does, Kamerling wrote.
The documentary will be part of the New Filmmakers series presented
by the New York Film Archive in April. It is to receive an award
for best cinematography at the upcoming New England Film Festival
and will be shown at the New Haven (Conn.) Film Festival this spring.
Following the Anchorage premiere, Alaskans can see Iditarod
at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Schaible Auditorium
on Friday. Meanwhile, Bouvrie has signed with a distributor, who
is exploring a television market. Eventually, copies of the film
will go on sale in Alaska, she said.
Bouvrie isnt sure how Outside audiences will react to her
work, which is highly favorable toward the race and its mushers.
She avoided controversy, specifically criticism of the race by animal-rights
I didnt really intend to address that issue,
Bouvrie said. What I wanted to do as a documentarian
was tell the story of the three mushers.
My own feeling?
I saw only inordinate respect from mushers (toward dogs). I tried
to document what I saw.
For Bouvrie, a measure of her films success is the ease with
which it has attracted attention in the film business. She credits
the mystique of the north and curiosity about the race.
I havent had to work too hard to get people to
be interested in my film, she said.
* Reporter Sandi Gerjevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.