Behind the camera, Jacqueline Cleveland had experience. She was comfortable. Being in front of the camera was another story.
But as she and her fellow filmmakers worked, it was evident that Cleveland was not only the best person to document the story of how climate change has affected Southwest Alaska villages — she was also the best person to illustrate it.
Cleveland, a Yup’ik filmmaker from Quinhagak, will — along with colleagues Sonia Luokkala and Mischa Hedges — debut “Ellavut Cimirtuq (Our World Is Changing)” this weekend at the Anchorage International Film Festival. The 30-minute documentary is part of a Made in Alaska short film series screening at noon Saturday at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.
The film features Cleveland prominently as both a co-director and the protagonist, examining her village’s culture and traditions as their surroundings change.
“I absolutely refused to be in front of the camera at first,” she said. “I’m just made to be behind the camera. That’s what I studied. So at first I was resistant of the idea of just me being on camera. But as we just talked about the main message of the film and getting the word out, having this voice as an Indigenous rural Alaskan was more important to me than my insecurities.”
The idea for the film started in Northern California with Luokkala, a journalist who reached out to Hedges to explore the idea of a documentary. An early trip in the process took the filmmakers to Quinhagak, where they met Cleveland.
“As soon as we met Jacki, it was very clear that we wanted her to be a part of this and really have the film be rooted in her perspective,” Hedges said.
At the time, Cleveland was contracted to work for KYUK Public Media in Bethel and was shooting an archaeological project aimed at recovering Yup’ik relics before they’re swallowed up by the encroaching sea. Cleveland said she clicked immediately with Luokkala and Hedges and, after some initial discussions, became a cultural adviser on the production.
“They had shots some B-roll of me doing work out there and shooting and interviewing,” Cleveland said. “Somehow it just started forming that maybe it’s gonna come through my lens as a local filmmaker.”
The archaeological project is a significant part of the film, but so are Cleveland’s interviews with elders, focusing on Yup’ik language and cultural traditions, including fishing and hunting. Both Cleveland and Hedges said they wanted the film to focus on people.
While the challenges are great, Cleveland said the situation has sparked a renewed pride and enthusiasm among both youths and elders.
“How do we stand out in a sea of climate change films out there?” Cleveland said. “What I observed was that there are never happy endings. And so we wanted to point out my community’s strengths and the strengths of our people. And to show that we’re resilient.”
The work on the film started in 2019, but was sidelined for a large portion of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With travel for the film team restricted, Cleveland did a lot of the filming during the next year. In total, production took around five years. Initially conceived as a feature documentary, the extended production time made a documentary short the best option, according to the filmmakers.
The process was a learning experience for Cleveland as well, as her interviews with elders yielded stories and traditions she was unfamiliar with. She even uncovered a family artifact of her own — a woven grass piece her grandmother made.
“It’s always been a dream for me to tell a story of our own people in our own community,” she said. “I just didn’t know when that would happen, but now is the best time to have this voice on the subject.”