Jirdes Baxter summed up her reaction to the Friday night premier of a documentary about the 1925 serum run to Nome using one simple word: "Wonderful," she said, shortly after the film ended, sitting in the back row of the Bear Tooth TheatrePub. She smiled and repeated, "it was just absolutely wonderful."
"Icebound" doesn't just focus on the heroism of Balto, the sled dog who is perhaps the event's most well-known character. Instead, the in-depth documentary explores the unheard stories of heroism, racism and the plagues that wiped out entire communities -- a sometimes-ugly piece of Alaska history.
"The mushers never got enough recognition," Baxter said. "It took long enough, but at least it finally happened." In a packed Midtown Anchorage theater, Baxter's thoughts on the documentary came from a perspective to which no other audience member could lay claim. Previously known as Jirdes Winther, she is the last living survivor of the 1925 diphtheria epidemic.
"I spent the entire month of the epidemic, or quarantine, hospitalized," said Baxter, who was 11 months old when the only doctor in Nome, Curtis Welch, diagnosed her, an older brother and her mother with diphtheria. "Everything I know has been passed on through stories from my mother. I know that my mother got the first of the serum from the first serum run. She was the sickest of us."
All three of them survived, keeping their family of five complete.
While "Icebound" takes a tone that's more dismal than some of the more kid-friendly retellings that have been produced in the years since the epidemic, it doesn't lack for good storytelling. The film presents the facts in a straightforward manner, focusing on ghastly details and little-known facts. Not to discredit Balto, but as the film will tell you, he was not the breakout leader popular culture has made him out to be. He did lead his musher through blinding whiteout conditions, but he was just one of 150-plus mushing dogs that navigated the subzero temperatures of an Alaska winter. "Icebound" also sheds light on why this particular Alaska epidemic was the one that sparked national headlines, when just seven years earlier that same region was almost completely wiped out by the Spanish influenza pandemic.
During a question-and-answer session following the movie's Friday night premier, a local school teacher thanked director and producer Daniel Anker for showing the less "glossy" side of history. Anker said he is unsure of how "Icebound" will be received by the Alaska Native population, but he is hoping to show the film in Nome and other Norton Sound communities.
"Icebound," presented as part of the Anchorage International Film Festival, is scheduled to screen again on Sunday, Dec. 15. Find a complete listing of festival offerings at AIFF's FestivalGenius site.