The screening of We Breathe Again at the Week of the Arctic conference in Fairbanks, Alaska, was an awesome opportunity to see the Arctic as more than just a chess piece in a global game of resources and states. The documentary film follows the lives of five Alaskan Natives over several years. I think this movie stands out against two different contexts: the place and time at which it was screened, and against Hollywood or mainstream media portrayals of indigeneity or “far flung” (from a Western standpoint) communities. Overall, the portrayal of the characters and its themes of despair as a catalyst for renewal and resilience. However, there exists a conflict between the universality of its themes and the unique historical legacy of trauma in Alaska and the wider Arctic.
Seen at a community screening in the shadow of the geopolitics unfolding at the Arctic Council meeting going on at the same time in the same town, it was a powerful reminder that, in the Arctic, Indigenous groups have a strong voice. As a viewer I couldn’t help but see the goings on in the conference hall as a bit staid in comparison, and it shows the sheer gulf between Arctic realities and ministerial speech-making, as well as the power of community to overcome challenges. It was refreshing to see the on-the-ground experiences of these people, who are often treated with a 10,000-foot view by technocrats in conference halls.
Billed as a movie about suicide and heartbreak in Alaska, We Breathe Again handles its subject matter with a deft touch that avoids reducing the people it follows around to cultural tropes. Indeed, it makes them exceedingly human. Director/Producer Marsh Chamberlain rightly avoided trying to fit the people around a preexisting narrative. A movie like The Eagle Huntress, a documentary about the “first female eagle huntress” in Mongolia, has been criticized for using its subjects and their culture to shore up a tale that the director seemed to want to tell from the beginning. Even if this is not true, the glossy Hollywood finish, the narration by a rising star, the soaring pop hit at the end, render it a little untrustworthy. We Breathe Again, however, seeks to depict things as they are with only a few lines of text at the beginning of the movie to set the stage. The characters quickly, through their own words, rise above the simple narrative of Arctic misery, and what the viewer ends up with is much richer than the tagline. The imagery is stark and true, and the characters are allowed to breathe and tell their stories.
Each of the characters has some past trauma that is propelling them forward in an admirable way. Kegulluq, an elder figure and youth coach is shown as someone dealing with his past in hostile boarding schools and familial death while watching his culture steadily eroded by global forces. His method of dealing with this state of affairs is to be a leader in his community and try to combat the feeling of despair in these remote towns.
There’s another trap that this movie avoids, it could easily force its subjects, residents of a place many would see as remote, declining, and sad, into a miserable corner. But this movie does not do that, and by giving them the space to speak and express who they are the viewer is struck by the fact that the message we come away with is far from a bleak tale of communal degradation, but rather, happily determined resilience in the face of mountains of trauma. These characters are wonderfully alive and proud of who they are.
While I heard some complaints that viewers who are not part of the Indigenous community felt as if the movie wasn’t for them, I think that even though the people in the film couch things in their own unique cultural argot, the themes of which they speak are largely universal. I can’t help but compare these communities to Rust Belt communities also dealing with some of the same issues, though different in degree and mechanism. The theme of a rising tide of suicide, substance abuse, economic despair, and eroding institutions is a familiar one for many worldwide. There is an issue with this universality though, because while the film seems to try to avoid the overtly political in contemporary terms, the fact that much of this communal suffering originates from legacies of colonialism could well be overlooked. It’s there to be seen, Kegulluq describes his time in a boarding school that sought to divest him of his native language and practices, and the flotsam of globalization abound in traditional dwellings. While relatively explicit in outlining colonial legacies, the fact that the film aspires to universal themes leaves the final takeaways a bit muddled. Does this very universality relegate colonial legacies to historical footnotes for viewers? It’s hard to say.
For better or for worse, the filmmakers on the film’s Kickstarter page invoke this very universality, and I can see the film being an effective introduction to Arctic issues for people outside of the Arctic. Studying the Arctic from the outside makes it seem as if the Arctic is an exceptional, unique place. There’s some truth to that, but at the end of the day, that exceptionalism is hard to invoke at the human level. For once, gone are the references to abstract global processes, and viewers get to see people in the Arctic in a much more personally relatable way. Not as tropes, not as sad victims, but as regular folks that are doing their best to make their lives better.
This publication is part of the blog series, “Arctic Foreign Policy Field Experience: Arctic Council Ministerial Meetings 2017.” View the introductory article and the listing of the 14 blogs that make up this series.