After an emotionally exhausting 90 minutes at the Anchorage International Film Festival, the Jury's Selection reel of short films ended with Boman Modine's "Merry Xmas." The hilarious take on the holiday problems of the upper-middle class reminded us that it's OK to laugh at our first-world problems: Namely, how can we get our adult children home for the holidays and get them to pay their own ticket. Everyone in the audience laughed as the punch line was revealed in an absolutely perfect cap to a lineup that made you laugh, made you cry and above all made you think about some of the greatest opportunities we have to make our world a better place.
Yes, last week was a busy week for film lovers. For 10 days the 15th annual AIFF screened a careful selection of features, documentaries, shorts and animations. Longing for some of that high culture I consciously left behind on the East Coast, I made it a point to attend as many of the screenings as possible. I was not disappointed by the intriguing lineup, which forced me to ponder the state of the world and the future of Alaska. But of course, that was the point. Kudos to the Program Director Laura Moscatello and the team of juries she assembled for curating an amazing festival. The films honestly wrestled with many of the great physical and emotional challenges facing us today. Some of the more timely themes included the scary proliferation of mental illness, the hopelessness of runaway political corruption, the unspoken crimes we visit on those with non-traditional sexual identities, the relationship between poverty and gender politics in Africa and the challenges of peacefully integrating conservative Islamic societies into a global Judeo-Christian marketplace. Wow -- like the festival itself, that was a mouthful!
The films were not always easy to watch, but I consistently walked out of the theater feeling challenged and empowered. That's art. As the audience was reminded in a teaser before each film, fiction is hope. Festival-goers were rewarded with a clear portrait of our shared humanity and reminded that we are blessed with the ability to challenge the present by dreaming up our own futures.
But the festival wasn't without its problems -- attendance being the most glaring. Of the films, none was better attended or more challenging then Bjorn Olson's Kickstarter documentary about the future of Cook Inlet, "Heart of Alaska." But to my dismay, many of the most powerful international films drew no more than a few dozen viewers. As I sat in nearly empty theaters, I was reminded that Alaska is a land of great contradictions, perhaps not entirely visible to those who have called it home since birth. Yes, in Alaska it's uniquely easy to forget about the problems facing the planet. In fact, nowhere else in the U.S. is it so easy to strike out into the wilderness and forget about the geopolitical and environmental situation we are threatening to leave the next generation of children. That's why the world came all the way up here, right? It has been the splendid unknown and the chance at a fresh start that has drawn so many here during the last half century. But we live in Anchorage, a truly cosmopolitan city with all the problems and possibilities that go along with integration into the global economy.
While the films themselves hinted that the provincial bliss so many of us relish is fast coming to an end, last Wednesday we got an even more prescient reminder. With the festival in high gear, Gov. Bill Walker's office revealed its budget proposal, and news that Alaska Dispatch News readers surely knew was on the way, came: The honeymoon is over. With no sign that energy prices will rebound in the next decade, Alaskans have to make some serious choices. The achy budget serves as a clarion call that we need to summon our highest creative energies. Art should not be relegated to the world of film -- making ends meet in an emotionally rewarding and environmentally sustainable fashion is nothing less than the highest art. And that is the challenge facing Alaskans today. Fortunately, it's not a challenge we need to face alone.
Budget concerns are just the tip of the melting iceberg. The physical and economic climate is changing, but so are ideas, priorities, values and opportunities. For the first time in the 10,000-year history of civilization, transportation, financial and communication systems create a relatively accessible global marketplace -- in goods, ideas and people! Following the completion of the railroad, the world did not hesitate to set up shop here in Anchorage, but as the epitome of Canadian cool reminded us in 1974, "you ain't seen nothing yet!" Thank you, Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
Too many of us dread the oncoming wave. Sure, things will be different, but as the world continues to pour into Anchorage, it will also be an amazing opportunity to draw on the creative power of humanity to create a compassionate, cosmopolitan, fiscally responsible and energy-efficient society the likes of which the planet has yet to see. We don't merely live in the heart of Alaska here in Anchorage -- we are the heart of Alaska and the nerve center of this great land. If you need a little inspiration to meet the challenge, the festival offers one last encore this weekend, with two showings of Best of the Fest. It's not too late to say you were there. Be a part of Alaska's future.
Michael Pospishil is a freelance writer and Ph.D. candidate in world history. He has taught American and world history in the Lower 48 and is in the adjunct pool at the University of Alaska Anchorage. As a certified interpretive guide he has been building bridges between Alaska and the world since 2008. He wrote this in cooperation with the Anchorage International Film Festival.
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