21 October 2020 The Irish Film & Television Network
Director Tom Burke discusses Losing Alaska with IFTN
01 Oct 2019 : Nathan Griffin
Losing Alaska
IFTN caught up with director Tom Burke to find out more about his experience documenting the incredible situation facing the remote town of Newtok, Alaska.

Losing Alaska releases in Irish cinemas including IMC, Omniplex, Movies@ and Gate Cinemas on Wednesday, October 2nd.

‘Losing Alaska’ tells the story of a small community in Alaska called Newtok who are dealing with a slow-moving disaster. The 375 inhabitants of Newtok feel the winter storms grow fiercer each year and steal their coastline; they watch their homes disappear into rolling seas as the melting permafrost erodes the edges of their town.  The plan is to abandon the town and start again 9 miles up the river on higher, more solid ground. The community is divided between those determined to stay, and those equally determined to move. They are fighting the weather, the indifference of state agencies and now, finally, each other.

The film, which received its International Premiere at the 2018 International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), is directed by Tom Burke and produced by Jessie Fisk and Alan Maher for Marcie Films with backing from Screen Ireland. Sound Design was done by Steve Fanagan, music by Gerry Horan and world sales are being handled by Taskovski Films.

IFTN journalist Nathan Griffin spoke with Tom ahead of the film’s release on Wednesday, October 2nd.

IFTN: How did you first hear about the struggles of the town of Newtok?

Tom: It goes back to late 2013 and The Guardian did a series of articles on the village. They send a reporter into the village and she did a series of articles called America's Climate Refugees. The articles were really good and the reporting was really good, but when I saw some of the photographs of the landscape, I thought the story here is really good, but it could do with a cinematic treatment because the landscape looked like nothing else that I'd ever seen. As the story unfolded, it seemed to have all the elements of a really good doc because ideally, a documentary film can't just be about one thing if it's going to evolve.”

“If it's going to earn a running time of more than 52 minutes, it has to have a few different things going on. The first thing is the environmental angle. This idea that they could see the land falling away and that it was an example of climate change that wasn't ambiguous or wasn’t abstract. The thing with climate change is, it could be very hard to point a camera. You can't really point a camera at a 0.5-degree increase in temperature and you can't point at a half cm rise in sea level, but in the case of Newtok, you could point a camera at this coastline and watch the land falling away month after month. That was the first angle.”

“The second angle then is this idea that they're going to pioneer a new town. That they're going to try and move the town up onto higher ground, which is quite dramatic and is almost this kind of American idea that this is something that you can do. In this part of the world, we don't really think like that. That's another good part of the story. “

“Then the third angle is the tribal dispute. The fact that even with these two things going on, they fell out amongst themselves along pretty fundamental ideological lines. All of those three things together made me think, "Okay, I think this story has legs."

IFTN: As you touch upon in the documentary, the indigenous community of Newtok is a very tight-knit circle. How did you make contact with them and earn their trust to give you such an insightful view of their situation?

Tom: As anyone that makes documentaries knows it is all about access. It's about access to your characters; it's about establishing trust and then generating intimacy. That takes time. There's no quick way to do that. The great advantage that I had as an Irish filmmaker is that a body like the film board as it was at the time, Screen Ireland now. They will allow you to work over the time frames that you need to generate that intimacy. You wouldn't be able to pull this off within TV deadlines or within news report deadlines or anything like that. You need that long run-in to establish genuine friendships and genuine intimacy.”

“In the finished film, I made seven trips over three and a half years and really it was only on the third trip in the second year that all the doors started to open because that's what it takes.”

IFTN: The ongoing saga of Newtok had begun long before you began documenting their story. From a directorial point of view, did you approach the project with the mindset that it was going to take a number of years to tell their story?

Tom: Yes, so the first trip was in 2015 and I think I knew at that point that I was making a multi-year commitment to the thing because they had been talking about moving for several years already. Even at that point in 2015, everything was stalled because of the tribal dispute. I didn't expect that they were going to be moving across the river any time soon and indeed they still haven't moved across the river now and it's 2019.“

“I had the luxury of being able to think over those longer time frames and thinking right, if this takes two to three years to play out then nobody in Screen Ireland is going to be calling me up saying, ‘Where is the finished film.’ You've got that time to let things breed. The other way that this would differ from a TV doc is you're allowed to let the story unfold the way it does naturally. Whereas in a more televisual treatment, you almost have to have figured out your chapter markers before you go in.”

IFTN: The documentary visually details the severe weather conditions and the permafrost that is eroding the land surrounding Newtok. What logistical problems did you face with regards to travelling and capturing these harsh conditions on camera?

Tom: The first trip I made was in March 2015 and the average temperature that week was -35 degrees Celsius. That was the first challenge because I didn't know if the gear was going to be up to that. I didn't know if the cameras and the tripods, my own stuff that I had been using in Ireland, it had never experienced that type of extreme temperature. That's the first thing.”

“Then there was myself, I didn't know how I would react to that temperature. As it happens I was lucky in that I seemed to get away with it. On the days when it was that type of cold, I would realize that I could film for about 40 or 45 minutes and then I would get this burning sensation in my feet. My feet were the first things to go. That was my warning that I had to get inside. I said it to Ramen one of the characters on one of the first days. I said, ‘I've got this weird burning sensation in my foot.’ He said, ‘That's the start of frostbite men.’ That's when you have to get inside.”

“The logistical challenges of shooting so far away from home and in such a remote place are that you have to be on top of your planning. It takes four or five flights to get there, 36 hours of continuous travel. It also means then, because the journey is so long, you really have to stay for a long time to justify all of that travel time. I did seven trips ranging from two to three weeks each.”

“That also meant I spend an awful lot of time in the village. While they might be seeing news crews coming in to do a news report on the erosion, they're used to those guys coming in and then leaving after a day or two. When I was still there they were like, ‘Oh…’ You would do one interview and then they'd realize you're still there. Then you'd have the second conversation and the third conversation. That's when you really get past those initial surface layers and you really get into the intimate stuff that makes for a good documentary.”

IFTN: The film consists of a very small team with Jerry Horan composing the score and Steve Fanagan handling the sound design, while Jesse Fisk and Alan Maher of Mercy Films produced. What was it like working with them and how did they contribute to the project?

Tom: “This is a film that was significantly made by myself because I had no crew. I went out and I shot this myself and I did the edits primarily myself. Jerry Horan made a huge contribution with the music. The music would have evolved in time with all of the shooting actually, from my very first shoots I came back and I showed footage to Jerry. So he was able to evolve the soundtrack almost in parallel with the rest of the project.”

“Similarly, Steve Fanagan did the sound design. Steve works a lot with Lenny Abramson so he's working at that very high level. I would have had very early conversations with Steve to say, ‘I've been to this place. It sounds like nowhere else I've ever been, just because there are no cars, none of the usual things we associate with a normal village. There are snow machines. There are four-wheelers, there are outboard engines, it sounds like nothing else and we really need to recreate that. That's going to be a huge part of it.’”

“In the case of Alan and Jesse, they are what I would call high-level producers. They're both involved in producing both documentaries and drama feature films, and I felt that given the potential of the project early on. After I had been through development, and had some initial footage to show I brought it to them because I really felt it needed people at their level, to really get it out there into the world and do it justice, to help generate the type of budget that we needed to keep going over that period. They were massively supportive of how I wanted to make the film, under what conditions I wanted to make the film and also then in the edits they were great because the notes through the editors were coherence. Both of them really wanted the film to be its own thing, and they never tried to press it into a particular shape, they never tried to alter it in order to seek money from somewhere, which is a classic complaint you might hear about producers. I couldn't be happier with both of them. They were supportive of me, just letting the story be was and not trying to make it something else.”

IFTN: As you've mentioned, the film is supported by Screen Ireland. How did you pitch the project and how did you approach seeking funding for this project?

Tom: “Again, compared to American colleagues or other colleagues, we're really fortunate to have a body like Screen Ireland, who can support a project over the long term like this. Also, the only way a project like this gets off the ground is because of development funding. In the documentary world, development funding is absolutely key because you can find characters, you can find stories, but until you get the time and the resources to test those stories to put people on camera to do initial shooting, and see actually does this thing have legs?”

“Like on paper, particularly in the case of Alaska because I'm reading about the story and then I'm reaching out to the village and I'm talking on the phone to four or five people before I get there. I feel like it should all make sense, but you have to go there. You have to put people on camera. You have to operate on the ground to see okay, is this thing actually going to work? You can't prove that unless you go there, get started, and to do that; you need development funding. I could have no complaints about screen Ireland because I'd like to think, this is exactly the type of thing that they're really good at supporting. It's an Irish filmmaker, an Irish team, but not an Irish story. It's a global story. More than once I've answered the question of what's an Irish person doing telling a story about an Alaskan village. My answer is, "Well, there was no American filmmaker chomping at the bit to do it, and we have a film agency that rewards curiosity on a global scale."

“It's something to be proud of that as Irish storytellers we're allowed to have this global view. We're lucky that we have Screen Ireland and the Arts Council and other bodies that allow that. They don't just want us to point cameras at ourselves.”

IFTN: What would you feel was the biggest lesson that you took from your time documenting this story?

Tom: “I guess, I’m continually impressed and continue to be impressed by the resilience and stamina of all the people in Newtok because they've been at this now for over 20 years and they just keep moving forward. They hold on to their optimism. They hold on to their plan to protect their own community and their own identity. There's a lot of optimism that you can draw from that. I think, not that I should tell people how to read the film because you can read the film in lots of different ways, but it can be read as a cautionary tale for all sorts of other communities around the world that might soon face this type of situation.”

“Today, its Newtok, Alaska and pretty soon it could be, in our case Ringsend, or Miami or Hong Kong or whatever. In any of those communities, you will have forces that are trying to help. You'll have forces that are trying to maintain the status quo. You'll have internal divisions between people. This little microcosmic story of this little village could actually hold lessons for the rest of us, I think.”

Losing Alaska releases in Irish cinemas include IMC, Omniplex, Movies@ and Gate Cinemas on Wednesday, October 2nd.

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