Nick Brandestini's Children of the Arctic follows five Alaska Native teenagers as their lives transform during a year in which they either graduate or are close to graduating from Barrow High School. Children of the Arctic is making the rounds in the film festival circuit and the Swiss director's film is well worth seeing. Brandestini's camera is unobtrusive, so most of the teens and people around them seem comfortable in front of the camera as they talk about straddling their traditional Alaska Native world and the demands from a western, all-American world. Samuel, Josiah, Flora, Ace and Mayaa live a shared experience through high school, all but Mayaa are Iñupiaq. Mayaa is part Yup'ik and part white, but each must decide for themselves how to live in their reality, prioritize values, and make their own decisions as they approach adulthood. The teenagers have different strengths and weaknesses, and must find themselves in the mix of culture, economics, gender roles, etc.
Barrow is the northern-most community of the United States. The environment is extreme, and Alaska Native people have been adapting and creating relationships with the natural world for 10,000 years in order to prosper. Traditional ways of life remain a steadfast reminder that there are universal truths between Man and Nature, and that one impacts the other. Children of the Arctic illustrates the importance of culture as it passes from generation to generation. Unlike the teenagers' counterparts in the Lower 48, the lessons and skills they learn from their elders are not just about how to view life and values, they are also tangible tools to survive and inculcate a tremendous love for their environment and people. But, kids will be kids, and in a small school where everyone knows one another, the pressures to succeed academically and socially are just like what other teenagers in America experience. Thinking about whether to go to college, join the military, get a job, etc., are par for the course.
Children of the Arctic takes advantage of the unending and impressive Arctic landscape. Viewers get a sense of what Barrow is really like, with wide shots of eternal skies both in sleepless daylight and on endless nights. The film gives viewers an intimate and personal look of just how significant whale hunts still are to Alaska Native traditions and how these traditions form the next generations of Alaska Native people. The teenagers recognize how unique their life and existence is and so they struggle with making decisions about their futures. They're not shy about taking on important subjects like their close and familial experiences of suicide, and the dangers of the disappearing ice.
Children of the Arctic's has steady pace tends to drag a little about an hour in, but the cinematography is worth a little patience. If the children of the arctic in the film are any indication of the heart and values of the Alaska Native people, then the next 10,000 years is well within their reach.
Children of the Arctic screens Sunday, December 6 at 5 p.m. at Bear Tooth.