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Film and TV

‘An absolute powerhouse’: Short film tells the incredible survival tale of Ada Blackjack

A new Alaska short film tells the story of Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat woman who survived alone on a remote island after an expedition gone wrong in 1921.

The film, “Ada Blackjack Rising,” was released Oct. 12 — Indigenous Peoples Day — and is based on Jennifer Niven’s book “Ada Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic.”

“It’s only a tiny slice of the story. … The main event in Ada’s life that forms the main part of Jennifer Niven’s book is the two years she spends on Wrangel Island,” executive producer and special effects supervisor Paddy Eason said.

Blackjack was shipwrecked on the island after signing on to an expedition across the Chukchi Sea in 1921, the only woman and Alaska Native of the five-member crew. The men on the expedition all died, leaving Blackjack to fend for herself.

The film was produced by Holly Mititquq Nordlum and Eason, and directed by Brice Habeger. It features an Alaska Native cast, including Adelaine Aklaasiaq Ahmasuk, who portrays Blackjack, and Maddy Kiminaq Alvanna-Stimpfle, who narrates in Inupiaq.

Habeger says the film was shot on the tidal flats near Carr-Gottstein Park in Anchorage and in Shishmaref. The majority was recorded last winter, but additional footage was shot early this year. Habeger connected with Eason a few years back regarding a Blackjack feature and reached out to Don Rearden, screenwriter for the film.

Adelaine Aklaasiaq Ahmasuk plays Ada Blackjack in the film ’Ada Blackjack Rising. ’ (Film still from Peak 3 LLC)
Scene from the film ’Ada Blackjack Rising. ’ (Film still from Peak 3 LLC)
’Ada Blackjack Rising ’ was filmed around Anchorage and in Shishmaref. (Film still from Peak 3 LLC)

Other than $200 in talent fees, Haberger said, the short film had no budget. Crew members donated time because they believed in the project and the talent of the team, he said.

Rearden had read Niven’s book about Blackjack years before, and her story stuck with him.

“Especially for young, Alaska Native women, this is a perfect role model — somebody who is resilient in the face of absolute horror and disaster,” Rearden said. “She overcame it. Her resilience is something that we can all learn from, whether you’re a little kid or an adult.”

The crew sees the six-minute film as an opportunity to tell a longer, more in-depth story of Blackjack. Eason says he could see her story being a feature film or miniseries. Rearden says he has even loftier goals.

“(Blackjack is) an absolute powerhouse hero that little kids should grow up knowing her name,” Rearden said. “There should be schools named after her and streets named after her and there should be a statue of Ada. That’s just how I feel.”

For more information about “Ada Blackjack Rising,” go to adablackjackstory.com.

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