Fairbanks-raised filmmaker tells story about growing up Nigerian in Alaska

Michelle Theriault Boots
Photo stills from the "Alaskaland" movie by filmmaker Chinonye Chukwu.December 2012

For Chinonye Chukwu, growing up Nigerian in Fairbanks was a never-ending commute between two different worlds.

Born in Rivers State, Nigeria, but raised in the Interior by her petroleum engineer and professor parents, Chukwu spent Christmas breaks in Africa with her family. The rest of the year she was an Alaska girl with a pink snowsuit.

"I grew up eating my mother's jollof rice for dinner and wanting to go dog mushing with my friends on weekends," Chukwu wrote. "Avoiding cousins that make fun of me for not knowing my native language and moose that plant themselves in my front yard."

Chukwu is now a Philadelphia-based filmmaker and faculty member at Rutgers University. She returned to Fairbanks in 2011 to shoot her first feature film, called "Alaskaland." On Saturday, she'll screen it at the Anchorage International Film Festival.

The film had its first Alaska showing in Fairbanks on Friday.

"Alaskaland," shot in two frenzied weeks, tells the story of an Alaska-raised Nigerian who confronts his hometown and his estranged sister after their parents are killed in a car crash.

Chukwu, 27, says she made the film to answer some lingering questions about what it means to be both Nigerian and Alaskan.

"I've had so many challenges personally trying to navigate this really unique identity that I embody," she said. "If I had seen a film about somebody also struggling with these multiple identities it would have helped me a lot."

Growing up in Fairbanks, Chukwu says, she mostly connected with the adults in her life -- teachers and parents' colleagues she grew to call "auntie" and "uncle" -- rather than kids her age.

"I never really went out," she said. "I went to one party the entire 12 years I was there, literally."

Her father, who taught in the petroleum engineering department for 20 years and recruited many African students to the program, turned their home into a kind of refuge for scholars from Africa living in the sub-Arctic.

"He saw every African he could and brought them over to our house," she said.

Other parts of her identity she swallowed. When a teacher mispronounced her name she let the mistake go until she was 17.

But the isolation, cold and quirk of her town allowed for plenty of dreamy imagining, which, she says, sowed the seeds of her career as a filmmaker.

"There are a lot of characters in Fairbanks," she said. "I'd look out my bedroom window on Palo Verde Avenue and imagine their back stories."

At the end of college in Indiana, Chukwu found herself back in Fairbanks for a semester. It was then that she took a screenwriting class from UAF professor Len Kamerling and worked on the crew of a feature film project, called "Chronic Town," about a lonely Fairbanks cab driver.

"She caught the bug," says UAF film professor Maya Salganek, who also worked on "Chronic Town" and served as producer on "Alaskaland."

Film school at Temple University came next.

When it came time to attempt a full-length feature film, telling a story about Fairbanks seemed inevitable, Chukwu said.

"I wanted to try to get some stuff off my chest," Chukwu said.

After writing the script for "Alaskaland," she flew 17 crew and cast members to Fairbanks at the end of March 2011 with a plan to film the movie in just two weeks.

Fairbanks embraced the project. Everyone she approached offered to help. The crew shot at familiar places from her childhood like the Bentley Mall in downtown Fairbanks, the Blue Loon and along the Tanana River.

Students from UAF's film department worked on the film from pre- to post-production, serving as location managers, camera assistants, grips and production designers.

"Alaskaland" is dedicated to Adrina Knutson, a student who worked as a production designer on the project. Knutson was killed in a vehicle accident in Tanzania while working on another film project with UAF professor Len Kamerling in August.

Proceeds from the Fairbanks screening went to the Adrina Knutson Memorial Scholarship Fund.

The movie encountered the usual filming-in-Alaska challenges, said producer Maya Salganek: too much light or not enough light, lots of snow or not enough snow.

"It was pretty much the tail end of spring," she said. "We were out of snow by the end of the shoot."

Other issues were unique to the subject matter.

At one point, Chukwu realized she needed someone who spoke Igbo to stand in for a small part.

"I called every single African that I had ever known, talked to, seen at the grocery store or heard about," she wrote on her blog.

Finally, an Igbo crew member stepped in.

The film, says Salganek, reveals themes both universal and unique to Fairbanks: the need for community in an isolated place and the vulnerability of people who don't find it.

"If you don't have a tight network of people kind of rooting for you all the time, it's easy to slip between the cracks."

"Alaskaland" has so far screened at the Chicago International Film Festival, Philadelphia International Film Festival, Montreal International Black Film Festival and others.

To Chukwu, coming home to Alaska means the completion of a loop that began when she arrived in Fairbanks as a 6-year-old.

"It's coming full-circle," she said. "Fairbanks is a critical part of my own development."


Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at mtheriault@adn.com or 257-4344.Qua ne probus C. Nost am patus hosularit L. Satid nocupionum ta cressa es cae,