The film has won 11 awards to date, presented at a wide range of film festivals. It goes without saying that Miroir Film and director Jan Louter are thrilled by this excellent achievement. AFI FEST, Los Angeles, USA, November 2008. Feature Documentary. Special Jury Award. International Film Festival, Anchorage, USA, November 2008. Best Feature Documentary. ONFilm Festival, Virginia, USA. March 2009. Best Feature Documentary. ONFilm Festival, Virginia, USA. March 2009. Best Environmental Documentary. Festival International du Film Insulaire, Bretagne, France, August 2009. Best Film Île d’Or Radar International Independent Film Festival, Hamburg, Germany, October 2009. Best Feature Documentary Beverly Hills Hi-Def Film Festival, USA, November 2009. Best Feature Documentary Green Planet Blue Festival, Romania, February 2010. Best Feature Documentary ACF’s Daniel Housberg Wilderness Image Award for Excellence in Film. Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Greece, March 2010. Best Environmental Documentary, WWF Award Tenerife International Film Festival, UK, June 2010. Best Documentary. Nominations Netherlands Film Festival, Utrecht, Netherlands. September 2008. Best Camera. Sichuan TV Festival, China, November 2009. Best Nature & Environmental Protection Award.
DUTCH HERITAGE DAY - USA
Jan Louter’s film will be screened at Dutch Heritage Day (November 16th) in the Dutch Embassy in Washington. This event is attended by an official Alaska delegation on its way to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Three poster format prints were made to accompany the welcome reception in the Dutch Embassy. The film has been awarded on several international filmfestivals in 2009. Find the complete list at the right column of this page
THE LAST DAYS OF SHISHMAREF WINS 2 FILM AWARDS
The Last Days of Shishmaref, a film by director Jan Louter, picked up the jury prize in the ‘Best Documentary Feature’ category last weekend at the Anchorage International Film Festival in Alaska. This is the second award that the documentary has received in the United States. Last month the film also won an award at the 2008 AFI FEST in Los Angeles: a Special Mention Jury Award for International Feature Documentary. The AFI FEST is the prestigious film festival organized by the American Film Institute in Hollywood. Although the jury award does not include a cash prize, the honorable mention immediately thrust the film into the spotlight for the press and distributors. Director Jan Louter had a positive discussion last week with the Cinema Guild in New York. The Guild is one of the largest American distributors for independent documentaries. In any case, the film has been picked up by a wide circuit of American libraries and will be used for other educational purposes. All that's needed now is positive reviews from newspapers such as the New York Times. That could signal the kickoff for The Last Days of Shishmaref to circulate in American movie theaters.
LOS ANGELES, DAY 4
Weblog by Jan Louter (director)
5 November 2008
The results of the presidential elections will come out tonight. Everyone we talk to wants to leave the country if McCain wins. California is predominantly democratic, a beacon of tolerance and wisdom compared to many other parts of the country. A referendum will be held here in which people can vote for or against gay marriage. Talked to Stephen Nementh, a producer and a great fighter for a better environment. He’s a big fan of the film. He put us in contact with a friend who’s a major climate change activist. They think that the film should be sent out into the world. Of course we agree, but it’s easier said than done. Peter Belisto, the former owner of Withoutabox, warned us that there are lots of people walking around in Los Angeles who are working as middlemen and are only out to earn money off of you. He advised us to go talk to ‘Celluloid Dreams’ or ‘Films Transit’. But it’s a difficult time. Distributors are hesitant to release documentaries.
‘The red carpet’
Before the evening starts, Juul and I are planned to appear on ‘The Red Carpet’. It takes place across from the Arclight Theatre. During the festival, all the directors, actors and actresses parade across a red carpet, portrayed against a backdrop featuring the names of the sponsors. The people in the spotlights here range from Soderbergh, Dustin Hoffman and Philip Seymour Hoffman to Jan Louter and Juul Kappelhof. Across the carpet from the back wall, a thick cord runs parallel along the entire length of the red carpet, lined in dozens of TV crews, photographers and journalists firing questions at the stars.
I venture out on the red carpet with some degree of embarrassment. I mean, who the hell is interested in a director from the Netherlands? But when my name is called from the tangled mob of press representatives and I’m asked to look into the lens of a Nikon camera, my hesitation sloughs off like dead skin. As if I’d never done anything else, I field questions from TV journalists and look into dozens of different lenses. “Yes, Mr. Louter, please, one more time…’ Not long after, I’m standing between two promising young actresses from Australia. Arms bared, breasts only barely less so. One of my hands rests on the shoulder of the black-haired girl, my other on the hip – almost the buttock – of the blond beauty. Not an ounce of fat there, and no underwear either. Hollywood fashion. Just one step farther and they’d be anorexia patients. I let myself be dragged into the game for a moment, because that’s all it is; at the end of the red carpet, you stand there empty-handed again.
Since the results of the presidential elections will be released today, we sit up late in the ‘cinema lounge’ of the Roosevelt Hotel watching the polls come in: Obama wins. We hear relief and cries of joy from all sides. America and the world are headed for a new future with Obama. He gives people hope again, while still staying realistic. The next morning, we say goodbye to a number of fantastic people. To Julianna, Nancy and of course Shaz Bennet, the festival director. When I kiss her goodbye, she tells me that The last days... won an award: ‘A Special Jury Mention’ in the ‘feature documentary’ category. That’s wonderful news, obviously. It will help the film enormously to find its way out into the world. LA is great!
It takes a while to get used to the chilly light of the Dutch winter again. But it could always be worse. As Bob Dylan says: ‘If you think you have lost everything, you’ll find out that you always can lose a little more.’ In Shishmaref, there isn’t any light at all this time of year, in mid-November. Just an hour of twilight, nothing more. And it’s incredibly depressing; no pill can make that go away. Maybe a light cannon?
Even before we left for Los Angeles, the steady flow of requests from screeners to send the film for various festivals, especially in America, was nothing to complain about, but a request comes in almost daily after the AFI FEST award.
In Anchorage (Alaska), the film has been officially selected for the AIFF film festival and we’ve been invited to attend the festival. They also want me to give a workshop about the film. Ticket and hotel costs are covered. I decide to go, although I’m really not looking forward to the long trip. Nearly 15 hours in the air. And it’s my third visit to America in nine months. On the other hand, since there’s now a serious candidate to distribute the film in America, I can arrange a layover in New York for a few days, so I can talk to Ryan Krivoshey from the Cinema Guild. Not a very big distributor, but they do have gorgeous films. I’ll be leaving at the end of November. By now, Renske has made all the arrangements for the industry screening at the IDFA. Unfortunately, the film can’t be screened for the audiences there, because it already premièred in the Netherlands. If it’s already come out, you can’t enter it. Yes, that’s how childish it often is. But this type of showing is incredibly important to us; only professionals come to an industry screening. Mostly people who co-produce and purchase documentaries for TV stations, like Thierry Garell from Arte. ‘I have a shop to run’
I’m busy preparing film shoots and developing new plans. You can never sit still or a gap will open up and we’ll be bankrupt. This profession often means working like a dog for very little money. Or, to use a nice American turn of phrase: ‘I have to run a family’. Or as noted gently by Dutch author Gerard Reve, who usually asked to be paid for an interview, to the great frustration of the journalists: ‘I have a shop to run and the chimney needs to keep smoking’. Artists always have to do all sorts of things for nothing, but why is that anyway? Fortunately, my wife and my 14-year-old son are not very demanding. We don’t buy expensive clothing and lead reasonably frugal lives. We really only spend money on good food and good wine. We never pass up an opportunity to break out the champagne.
If I add up all the hours that I spent working on the project for The last days of Shishmaref (film, website, book, exhibition) and compare it to the money I earned, it’s very depressing. I might as well go stock shelves at the local supermarket for this money. So why do I do it anyway? I’ve been asking myself that a lot lately, and maybe it won’t be long before I chuck it all in.
At some point you’re just done; all the energy has been drained out of you. Not from making a film, but from all the things that happen around that process. Waving around your plan until you find a broadcasting company prepared to try it. And the world of television is only shrinking; the people working there keep getting punched down. Funding foundations keep raising their requirements for the film plans, while the pay remains the same. I’ve been pulling this cart for 15 years now. More and more, I’ve been thinking about a well-paying part-time job. In order to avoid deviating from the current trend, I’ll be satisfied with the ‘Balkenende norm’, which says that public administrators should earn more than the Dutch Prime Minister.
LOS ANGELES, DAY 3
Weblog by Jan Louter (director)
4 November 2008
We have been driving down Sunset Blvd towards the ocean for 45 minutes now, heading out to visit Robert Towne and his wife Luisa. Robert is a living legend in Hollywood. He’s written many movie scripts, including The Last Detail, Tequila Sunrise and the classic Chinatown, starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. The 1974 film was directed by Roman Polanski and won quite a few Oscars.
Robert won an Oscar for his script, too. He also co-wrote Bonnie and Clyde and The Godfather ; he wrote a number of essential scenes for that one. In 1997 he received the “Writers Guild’s Screen Laurel Award for lifetime contributions to the art of screenwriting’. And just a few years ago, the script for Chinatown was nominated the third best film script of all time, after The Godfather and Casablanca.
Ask the dust
He lives in Pacific Palisades, a stunningly beautiful area with huge mansions, near the ocean. Many film stars live in the neighborhood, including Tom Cruise and Paul Verhoeven. I last saw Robert when I was making a short item for an art show for the VPRO, about five years ago. He was working in the Paramount Studios on Melrose at the time, editing his film Ask the Dust, based on the homonymous 1939 novel by John Fante. He had written the script years before, but couldn’t sell it. All the studio heads said the story was ‘too depressing’. Until Tom Cruise, who has a production company with Paula Wagner and is a friend of Robert’s, was willing to take the chance – but only if Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek starred in it.
The film flopped anyway, in the end. The biggest problem was that it turned into too much of a romantic movie, with lots of golden yellow light and smoke machines to underline that romantic atmosphere even more. Everything about the film was wrong, really; incomprehensible, because Robert knows the novel better than anyone. It should have been about a writer trying to eke out an existence on the seamier side of life. A film about a novel being written by an ambitious young writer who moved to Los Angeles to become famous. Famous for his book. A film about ethnicity. A fight between the spaghetti eater Arthuro Bandini and the Mexican woman Camilla Lopez. Both migrants, both non-white. But racism doesn’t sell, because that is what Ask the Dust is essentially about, reading between the lines. A deep-rooted racism felt by the ‘superior’ white race towards anything of any other color.
Robert has grown old, fragile. His sunken cheeks accentuate his age, a huge contrast from our first encounter in 1988. He was a large man in those days and even though his hair and beard were already moving from grey to white then, he was a powerhouse. His eyes sparkled with a passion for life and a creative energy. Of course age plays a role; he was 54 then, 74 now. He is still working, never stopped, but his eyes are less bright. Something has changed. Perhaps the disappointment from the failure of Ask the Dust. A project that he worked on for so long, you could call it his life’s work. I can imagine that. And on top of that, Robert absolutely had to direct the film himself, although he knows deep in his heart that he’s not a great director. Not a Kubrick, Polanski or Scorsese. But somehow, I think he wanted to prove himself as a director too. One of the most complex aspects in life is learning to accept your limitations. I still haven’t been able to; maybe you have to be a Buddhist to achieve that goal.
To give a clearer impression of John Fante and Robert Towne, I quote an excerpt from a series of letters that I published in Bunker Hill literary magazine after filming A sad flower. ( Bunker Hill, year 3, issue 11/12, September 2000). The letters were addressed to Jasper Henderson, editor of Bezige Bij publishers at the time, as well as Bunker Hill. As coincidence would have it, I discovered the last issue when I went through my post a few days ago: Bunker Hill will be discontinued as per 2009. Everything ends eventually.
Dear Jasper, I promised you that I would write about Robert Towne. Although I’m very tired, I will give it a quick try… Why I’m always welcome, I don’t know. I am writing you this because he rarely responds to interview request. He never replied to any of the letters from my friend Steve Cooper, for instance. When I told Steve that Robert had a major hand in the documentary, he couldn’t believe his ears. He didn’t understand it at all. It’s too bad for Steve that he was never able to talk to Robert. Steve spent over seven years working on his biography of John Fante. If you can’t get a reply from such a key source of information, it’s obviously a shame. But still, it’s Robert’s choice to make. He lives a very retiring life, with his wife Luisa, who’s Italian, and his eight-year-old daughter Ciara.
It’s wonderful to sit by the pool with Robert holding a glass of wine. We mainly talk about John Fante, of course. He’s uncovered quite a few anecdotes over the years. He brought up a few in the interview that we filmed this afternoon. Masterful, the way Robert formulates his stories, contemplatively puffing on his little ‘Davidoff cigar’. When I ask if he ever talked to Fante about Camilla Lopez, he started grinning. You know what he said? ‘Bob, she was a dyke!’ One of Fante’s hilarious statements. This is how you get to know who you’re dealing with.
We went to the grave with Robert yesterday. Sort of a pilgrimage. John Fante lies buried in a Catholic graveyard, the Holy Cross Cemetery, which is on Slausun Ave. It ended up being a beautiful scene, which will be put somewhere near the beginning of the film. Robert sits in his car on the way to the graveyard and tells on the way how he discovered Ask the Dust when he was doing research for Chinatown. The novel was set in the 1930s. Robert was immediately swept away by what he read; it described the city of his youth. The Los Angeles that hardly exists anymore, the city that has disappeared under a layer of dust. Ask the Dust drew a forgotten world into enchanted existence, page by page. It was the beginning of a passionate love for the novel. It was also the beginning of his friendship with John Fante, which endured until his death in 1984…
Jasper, the film is about having a dream. And John Fante’s dream was to be a famous writer. But making dreams come true takes hard work. It’s just a sidetrack, but it’s worth looking at. I just remembered something: a passage from ‘John Fante & H.L. Mencken, A personal correspondence 1930-1952’. They wrote to each other for 22 years and never met. That moves me, you understand?
‘Dear Mr. Mencken, Will you answer a question for me? In the past thirty days I have written 150,000 words. I know a writer with a reputation does not do that many, but is a man just starting supposed to do that much? I certainly feel the effects. For being broke throughout, I ate very little and lost a pound a day, which is thirty pounds now...’
That’s what you call commitment. Maybe you should have all those young, so-called modern, up-and-coming writers from your fund read that quote sometime. Even if there’s just one person who understands it, Jasper, one person is enough! Make sure you have a dream; there is no life without dreams. You know why I like Robert? He still has dreams. Even if he has a gorgeous house and millions in the bank. His dream is to make a movie of Ask the Dust. And after 23 years, he’s finally going to do it. There is a young, promising actor who every studio wants to sign, and he wants to play Bandini. I’ve forgotten his name, but Robert said, happy as a child, ‘I’ve got my man!’. I hope that Joyce (Fante’s wife – J.L.) will still be able to see it, then her dream will have become a reality too…’
When we leave, I give Robert a DVD of The last days of Shishmaref. Renske takes a picture, the only photo that immortalizes me alongside Robert. Juul kisses Luisa goodbye. The women agree to go out for dinner next time. But somehow a feeling of melancholy creeps over me: will there be a next time?
LOS ANGELES, DAY 2
Weblog by Jan Louter (director)
3 November 2008
A bit hung over from the booze and the short night’s sleep; several interviews are on the agenda for today. We drive to the Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Blvd. That’s where the festival’s publicity department is set up and where the filmmakers, producers and film stars meet for drinks. After a warm welcome from Nancy, we get a bag containing the catalogue. And there we are, surrounded by all the big names. Wonderful; let me dream here for a moment. After all, I’m in the city of dreamers! Reality rarely interests me. Reality is there to be escaped, through writing or filmmaking, and especially through dreaming.
We are assigned a hostess who guides us to the various interviews. Yes, LA gives you a royal reception, much different from the Netherlands. The attitude at the IDFA or the Netherlands Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere, is that you should feel privileged that your film was chosen. Everyone’s essentially more important than the filmmaker. But what more can you expect if you live in a country where everything is equalized, where knowledge and art are considered suspect and stupidity reigns supreme.
People in the Netherlands don’t know how to treat celebrities. Take an author like Cees Nooteboom; he’s a hero in Germany, but people in his home country of the Netherlands just shrug. Sure, he won the PC Hooft Prize, but he isn’t cherished. That’s not in the Dutch nature. And the socialist sauce poured over our society after the war doesn’t make it any better. It may all be a bit exaggerated here, and maybe insincere, but this attitude is a breath of fresh air.
Nancy told me that 4000 films were submitted this year, including 1000 documentaries. In the end, 14 were selected to compete. I suddenly realize what a great honor it is. When they show me the LA Weekly a bit later, which contains a glowing review of the film, we’re floating on air for a while.
Filmmaker and winegrower I bump into Stephen Ashton in the lobby of the gorgeous Art Deco hotel. He’s the founder and the director of the Wine County Film Festival in the hills above San Francisco. I got to know him in 2001 when my film A sad flower in the sand was playing at the AFI FEST. Stephen wants to schedule The last days... for his festival. Would be fun; I’d probably get to meet Francis Ford Coppola and drink his famous wines. Coppola sponsors the festival and owns the best vineyards in the Valley. Filmmaker and winegrower, not a bad combination.
Gave lots of interviews for the AFI website, newspapers, all sorts of local TV stations and Canal+ Spain. At a certain point in time, you just rattle off your story. You hear yourself saying the same thing over and over. But what else can you do? I’m starting to be able to imagine that some actors who have to promote a movie go completely crazy after having to spin off their story 100 times.
Money, lots of money
After the interview sessions, we head over to the Arclight for the ‘Connect Program’. We have meetings scheduled with ten different distributors and producers. You have ten minutes for each meeting, and then you move on to the next table. One of the people we talk to is Klaus Rasmussen from Bavaria Films in Germany. Bavaria is a huge, important distributor and we don’t think there’s much chance that they would want to do ‘business’ with us. But nothing is impossible. Klaus is polite and extremely courteous. He listens with interest and promises us that he will pass on all the information, the screener and the film flyer to his colleague Olaf. Olaf will make the final decision. But we understand that it’s all far from simple.
It’s about money, lots of money. Investments first, possible profits later. First they look at whether the film will be able to attract a potential audience, and only then is the quality of the film considered. And every distributor knows that documentaries don’t generally do very well in cinemas. It’s a strange phenomenon, since the IDFA (which is the biggest documentary festival in the world) attracts 150,000 visitors to Amsterdam in a week, but the public doesn’t stick around afterwards.
One person who is very interested in our film is Udy Epstein from Seventh Art Releasing, in Los Angeles. He is a producer and a distributor. He distributed award-winning and Oscar-winning feature-length documentaries, including The long way home . He has already let us know a couple of times that he’s very eager to participate. But when I ask my friend Julianna Brannaum, we hear that he is a serious fan of high-quality films, from the independent segment, but doesn’t really have the resources to launch a film on the market. For a film to have a chance of success in America – or anywhere, really – you have to advertise. And that all takes a lot of money. There’s a reason why the budgets for marketing and publicity for the major blockbusters are usually just as high as the production costs for the movie. Yes, we live in a world gone into overdrive. ‘It doesn’t matter what you know, but who you know’ The last of our ten meetings is with Chan Phung from the Universal Picture Group. She made an appointment with us to find out if she would be interested in handling worldwide distribution of the film. If it works out, Miroir Film would open its LA Desk in Beverly Hills. Renske has already offered to run the local office; she doesn’t want to go back to the Netherlands anymore. She feels like a fish in water in this city of illusions. Laughing, she keeps saying: “It doesn’t matter what you know, but who you know!”
LOS ANGELES, DAY 1
Weblog by Jan Louter (director)
2 November 2008
The last days of Shishmaref had its first Los Angeles screening yesterday at the prestigious AFI FEST, the American Film Institute’s film festival. It was a gorgeous display in the famous hall of the Arclight Theatre on Sunset Blvd, in the heart of Hollywood. The cinemas next to us were showing Steven Soderbergh’s new film Ché and A Tribute to Danny Boyle. Boyle is known for his successful Scottish film Trainspotting. Juul, Renske and I had decided to go to LA together, since many appointments had been made with distributors who were interested. We drove straight from LAX airport to the Arclight, taking the 405 Santa Monica Freeway towards West Hollywood. How many times have I already driven down this road? Seven times, maybe more. LA is always like coming home for me. My first time was in 1982; I took a trip through America to leave my heartbreak behind. Later my friends Henk and Lenie moved there. And I filmed A sad flower in the sand there in 2000, about the writer John Fante. The film played at the AFI Fest a year later and won an award. Another year later, PBS bought A sad flower and broadcast it on American TV. I made friends in those days with one of the festival programmers, Julianna Braunnam, who I’m still in contact with. Julianna now makes her own documentaries.
The lights of Los Angeles can be enchanting, especially at dusk. The neon lights and the red taillights of the cars paint the streets in surreal pastels, while the silhouettes of the slender palm trees stand out in sharp contrast against the blue-orange sky. Reality takes on fresh color and changes into an illusion. In film terms, this time of day is known as the ‘Magic Hour’. Everything gains shine and significance, even the inconsequential details. It is the moment when you rise above yourself, forget all the limitations of life; you become one with the city. The dust that blows in from the Mojave Desert and settles in the streets of LA turns out to be not sand, but gold. Tiny grains of gold just waiting for someone to pick them up! Broken glass turns into diamonds; grief becomes happiness. But the ‘Magic Hour’ doesn’t last long. After half an hour, the darkness swallows up the light. Gone the dreams, gone the glimpse of paradise! The city of illusions shows its true face. But you can face your ordinary life again for while. As if you interrupted the dull monotony of the short, grey days of a Dutch winter with a sunny holiday on the island of Tenerife.
We were just in time to catch the beginning of the film. It was interesting to hear how fantastic the sound was in the cinema; you could hear every deal. It makes such a big different which theatre a film shows in. Even though I naturally know every single shot of the movie by heart, and I’ve seen it in cinemas several times by now, I was glued to the screen. Somehow, for the first time, I was able to step back and see it as if it were not my own film. I saw the good in it, but there were also a few scene transitions that I’d probably edit differently now. But isn’t it the tiny flaw that characterizes beauty? Doesn’t the lovely face of a beautiful woman gain a touch of sophistication from that one unobtrusive beauty mark, just below her nose? An unevenness that is easily overlooked. Fantastic responses from the audience, which help keep the exhaustion from the long journey at bay. The Q&A with the audience was no different from the questions that were asked in the Netherlands. Our answers were the same too. We wanted a drink – or lots of drinks.
From Marilyn Monroe to Jack Nicholson
We disentangle ourselves from the festival crowds and drive to Musso & Frank Grill on Hollywood Blvd, a famous joint that will have its 90th anniversary next year. Every film star and writer has had a drink and meal there – from Gregory Peck and Jack Nicholson to Sean Penn, from Marilyn Monroe and Julia Roberts to Madonna. From Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner to Bret Easton Ellis. I’m sitting on the bar stool where Harrison Ford always sits when he’s in town. We order margaritas and raise a glass to the film. My first visit to Musso & Frank Grill was in 1982, and I’ve been back many times since. You can feel the history, the love affairs that flared up and died here. The ideas for films that appeared to William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald like a fata morgana in the bottom of the umpteenth glass, only to dissolve into mist the next morning, leaving nothing behind but a hangover and a couple new paragraphs for a novel. My favorite author, John Fante, came there often, accompanied by his friend Carey McWilliams. Fante wrote for the studios, but he hated Hollywood, the producers with their fat cigars. Fante raked in the dollars that his novels failed to earn him. His minor masterpiece Ask the Dust , published in 1939, only sold 900 copies – not enough for him to support his family. Since Fante was rediscovered in 1982, thanks to Charles Bukowski, Robert Towne and Francis Ford Copolla, he has become a ‘modern classic’. Millions of copies of the book have been sold over the years.
Renske and Juul chat away their fatigue, almost like a mother and daughter. Sunk in contemplation, I remember what Joyce Fante said about Camilla Lopez, one of the two main characters from the novel, along with Arthuro Bandini: “Yes, she was beautiful, drop-dead gorgeous. Dark eyes and heavy eyebrows… the affair almost ruined our marriage. I saw Camilla here once; she walked straight up to John. I thought she was going to slap his face, but she kissed his cheek. She had the courtesy not to kiss him on the lips in front of me.” If the walls of Musso & Frank Grill could talk, pages of Hollywood’s history would have to be rewritten. We order more margaritas. Why not? Life is short. The past stretching behind me is longer than the future ahead of me. I track the actions of Sébastian, the bartender. He’s 74 years old and has been working as a bartender at Musso & Frank Grill for almost 55 years. He was originally from Ecuador. He left the country of his birth at a young age to earn money in the land of infinite possibilities. He still loves his work just as much as when he started. Sébastian has shaken hands with everyone who ever played a role of any significance on the silver screen in Hollywood. 55 years of cinematic history are stored in his head. Every time I come, I ask him, “Sébastian, talk to me… Tell me the stories. Tell me what you saw. How beautiful was Marilyn Monroe? What were Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall like? Tell me about Scott Fitzgerald and John Fante. Bring them back to life, Sébastian, please. I’m begging you... tell me your anecdotes.” But he always shakes his head. “Later, boy, when I stop working. Come back then.” I knew he would say the same thing again this time, because that’s always his answer. “But Sébastian, you’re going to work until you die here, behind the bar. Then it will all be lost; you’ll take the stories to the grave with you!” He laughs, “I’ll be stopping next year. I’ll be 75 then and I want to have ten years or so to enjoy my pension; no worries.” Complete confidentiality was the deal for a job at Musso & Frank Grill. The staff does not gossip. Break the vow of secrecy even once and it’s all over, you’re out on the street.
I am slowly getting drunk on the margaritas and the jetlag, losing myself in the past, wandering through the 1950s and 60s. That’s such an appealing thing, that timelessness. Time that stretches out in all directions; a moment can last an eternity. I miss Fernando, the waiter. Maybe he has a day off? Fernando serves up the platters and plates with a grace that is an odd contrast to his portly figure. But he’s a fantastic waiter, everyone loves him. He speaks seven languages, including fluent Dutch. Fernando is married to a Dutch woman he met in Mexico. Reality overtakes my imaginings; Juul and Renske fall still, their laughter silenced. Out of the corner of my eye, I see actor Colin Farrell walk in and sit down at the bar. There’s only one bar stool between him and Renske. Just ten seconds later, she’s deep in conversation with him.
THE LAST DAYS OF SHISHMAREF SHOWING IN HOLLYWOOD
The Last Days of Shishmaref was selected for a prestigious film festival in Los Angeles. The film will be shown at the AFI FEST. This authoritative festival organized by the American Film Institute will be taking place this year for the 22nd time in various film venues in Hollywood and the historic Roosevelt Hotel. AFI Fest is the definitive American podium for international cinema, as well as the kick-off for the awards season. At the same time, it offers a film market where filmmakers and producers can meet each other. Miroir Film will be heading to LA to be present at the showing. The festival runs from 30 October through 9 November. AFI FEST
IN MOVIE THEATERS NOW
The Last Days of Shishmaref. An Inupiaq community swallowed by the sea The film is playing in theaters throughout the country: 11-17 December 2008 Filmschuur - Haarlem 19-24 December 2008 Theater de Fabriek - Zaandam From 18 December 2008 on Lumière - Maastricht 27 December 2008 Filmliga - Hengelo 2009 1 January 2009 Filmtheater Luxor - Zutphen 1-5 January 2009 Zevenskoop - Den Helder 9-14 January 2009 Filmhuis de Keizer - Deventer 15 January 2009 Filmhuis Schiedam - Schiedam 21 January 2009 Filmhuis Zevenaar - Zevenaar Witte Theater - IJmuiden 22 January 2009 Filmtheater De Luxe - Schagen Filmhuis Emmen - Emmen Theater de Kolk - Assen 23 through 25 January 2009 Provadja - Alkmaar 17 February 2009 Filmhuis Purmerend - Purmerend
REVIEW BY HANNEKE GROENTEMAN
Tip The Last Days of Shishmaref, a documentary by Jan Louter and Melle van Essen. An impressive film, playing Saturday afternoon 4 October at the Rialto in Amsterdam (4 p.m.), starting 9 October in various theaters, and no doubt soon on television as well (although you really should see this film on the big screen!). About a melting ice cap that threatens a tiny community in Alaska. Their island is disappearing – and in its wake goes a beautiful, primitive community that has been there for centuries. A beautiful film. 04 October '08 - 01:32 Hanneke Groenteman
THE LAST DAYS OF SHISHMAREF IN THE MEDIA
The Last Days of Shishmaref has garnered a lot of media attention. Special appearances on Dutch TV: - Nova (Shishmaref Special, Saturday, 20 September at 22.15 on NL 2.) - MAX broadcast (Tuesday, 23 September at 16.30 p.m.) - NPS Kunststof (Sunday, 28 September at 16.15 p.m.) - Pauw & Witteman (tentatively: Tuesday, 14 October at 22.00) - De Wereld Draait Door (Tuesday 28 October or the first week of November) Jan Louter (director) will make guest appearances: - Matthijs van Nieuwkerk talk show, Pavillion at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht (Sunday 28 September at 22.30) - Preview première and interview with Hanneke Groenteman, Rialto cinema (Saturday, 4 October at 16.00) - Preview première and debate, LUX in Nijmegen (Saturday, 4 October at 19.00) - Preview première National Geographic, Ketelhuis Amsterdam (Sunday, 5 October at 15.00)
MOVIE2MOVIE REVIEW OF THE LAST DAYS OF SHISHMAREF
Dutch online movie review zine 'movie2movie' published an enthousiastic review of The Last Days of Shishmaref.
"If you think that, after Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' and Leonardo Di Caprio's 'The 11th Hour' (not to forget 'Earth'), you don't need to watch another movie on climate change, then please read on."
I still think back to the première with great pleasure. What a fantastic evening! It was the first time that I was able to thoroughly enjoy the film myself. I was proud of what we all achieved together. Producing such a big project can be compared to producing a small feature film.
It was a huge amount of work, and it all went smoothly except for one minor hitch. Juul and Renske did a fabulous job. Melle also made an important contribution to the preparations. He had filmed in Siberia once before and had some idea of what we would be facing.
The biggest problem – in retrospect – was the funding. When we started the project, the whole climate hype had not happened yet. We are still nearly 30 thousand euros short! In terms of publicity, Al Gore was a godsend for us. His involvement brought us much more public interest all of a sudden.
Pauw & Witteman
As early as the 16th of January, Dutch duo Pauw & Witteman invited me to appear as a guest on their late-night talk show. The climate summit was being held on Bali and they wanted to have someone else than the standard experts. I naturally politely declined the invitation. Why should I appear on TV if I can’t promote my film yet? The release was scheduled for more than half a year later, in early October, after the Netherlands Film Festival. The editors promised they would invite me again when the film hit the cinemas.
But once the time came, they didn’t want to anymore. Nova had dedicated an entire show to Shishmaref on the 20th of September, a week before the première (the show is on the site). Like several of those shows, Pauw & Witteman wanted an exclusive. If they’re not first, they’re not interested. The arrogance of power. Ridiculous! I will have no part of that; let them stew in their own juices.
Fortunately, we had no lack of publicity. Renske worked closely with Petra and Gideon from Cinemien and did a lot of great work. The result is wonderful. Now we just home that people will make the switch to the cinema. When the IDFA is there, it’s packed, but when the documentaries are showing in theatres on their own, the people stay home or choose a feature film instead.
That is why it’s difficult for a distributor to run documentaries in theatres. A cinematic release means an investment of about 25 thousand euros. To cover the costs, nearly 8000 people have to go see the film. Or the DVD has to sell very well. Usually it’s a combination of both.
Groenteman and vitamin C
There were three special showings the week before the release on the 9th of October. The first was in Rialto, a theater in Amsterdam. Hanneke Groenteman interviewed me afterwards. Lots of fun. She does it pleasantly, very modest. Too bad she’s not presenting the program ‘De Plantage’ anymore.
Hanneke was very impressed by the film and made no secret of the fact. The audience was also enthusiastic and asked a remarkable number of questions. Also very unexpected ones. A doctor, for example, asked how the Inupiaq get their vitamin C since fruit and vegetables are almost unavailable on the island. I wasn’t able to give him an answer on that; I still need to figure it out. If anyone happens to know, please email me. Of course a diet consisting exclusively of meat and fish isn’t enough. People used to get scurvy from vitamin C shortage – it happened regularly on long sea voyages, like journeys to the Far East. The only thing I can think of is the berries that are picked and eaten all the time, but they aren’t available in the winter. Maybe it’s a matter of saving enough for later?
Hanneke also said that she had been a guest on radio show Opium and had mentioned The Last Days of Shishmaref as the cultural tip of the week. And her website ‘Groenteman, wat eten we vandaag?’ specifically says how good she thought the film was. Yes, Hanneke is definitely a true fan. We need more like that.
After the interview in the Rialto, I immediately drove on to Nijmegen, about an hour to the southeast of Amsterdam. A debate had been organized there with a professor, who is an expert on the phenomenon of ‘climate refugees’. He estimates that there will be 200 million in the coming decades. Countries like Bangladesh will be hit the hardest.
His working group is trying to achieve official status for climate refugees – which would have to happen in a UN framework. Right now, people are still left to their fates. Shishmaref is a good example of that.
In 15 years, the Maldives may also disappear beneath the waves. Where should those people go and who will pay for it? Just think, relocating a community of 600 Inupiat who live in very basic wooden houses already costs almost 100 million dollars.
After the show in Nijmegen, I spent some time talking to a very nice couple who are both visual artists. It is enjoyable to see how differently the public views it. Much more open-minded; unlike critics, they don’t have to decide immediately what they think of it.
I got home at 1 a.m. Couldn’t hear the word Shishmaref for a bit. But another show was already planned for the next day, this time in the Ketelhuis theater in Amsterdam, especially for National Geographic subscribers. Cinemien had made a deal with the magazine and the TV channel for a reasonable price. A short commercial on the channel and an ad in the magazine. That was a fun afternoon too.
More about the visitors next week, and about the invitation to come to Los Angeles for the American Film Institute’s prestigious AFI FEST. And of course about Al Gore’s upcoming visit. Will I be shaking his hand or not?
THE OFFICIAL PREMIèRE
Just a few days later, The Last Days of Shishmaref premières at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht. It’s a madhouse here. Producers Juul and Renske spend the whole day on the phone or behind the computer, making the final preparations. The theater is completely sold out. We are now receiving requests from people who we have to turn away. The theater seats 450; once it’s full, it’s full!
None of my films has ever attracted so much attention from the media before. The VARA TV guide has a big feature piece on the Nova broadcast. Of course that was wonderful: a whole show devoted entirely to Shishmaref and the film. Major interviews in De Volkskrant (a major Dutch newspaper), Green.2, Salt and other publications that I had never heard of before. All the glossies have an article on the film, covering the full spectrum of the Dutch market.
I did radio interviews, and television puts up a good fight too after the Nova broadcast. The first ‘live’ interview was for Max broadcasting company, followed by ‘Kunststof’ by the NPS, a new TV programme about arts and culture. Live every Sunday from 5 to 6 p.m. from the Plantage neighbourhood in Amsterdam.
The other guests on ‘Kunststof’ were photographer Erwin Olaf and director Johan Kramer. Presentor Joost Karhof directed the discussion nicely. Casually, with room for humor and the opportunity to respond to each other. I was very impressed with the photos by Erwin Olaf. If you look closely, every photo tells a story; it speaks to your imagination.
I like that, that’s the fascinating thing about art. That is why I can spend forever looking at a painting by Klaas Gubbels, which is hanging on the wall in my living room. It’s a still life of a table with pitchers on it. Seemingly nothing special about it. A lifeless world that comes to life when you look closely at it. The objects take on a life of their own, gain significance. A world opens to your gaze!
When the film goes into cinematic release on 9 October, the reviews hit the newspapers. That’s generally less fun; there is always some sourpuss who writes a bad review, and the crazy thing is that that’s the one you remember. The good ones can hardly compete with one bad review. How does that work? I’m not the only one who has that problem.
Before we head off to Utrecht, I do one more ‘slow run’ around the Kralingse Plas, a local lake. My pace is somewhere between a walk and a jog. Jogging relaxes me and pumps me up. The city is gorgeous in the distance; in a way, the skyline is reminscent of a major American metropolis. It gives you a cosmopolitian feeling.
I fill my lungs with oxygen and jog all the worries out of my body. Fabulous, better than drugs and alcohol. Long live endorphins! And it’s free, too! The entire Dutch population, as a whole, should be required by law to go jogging. Maybe then they would complain less and be a bit nicer to each other. We are such a rude, uncivil people. If I couldn’t travel and escape to the French countryside, I would go crazy.
It isn’t until the Oude Gracht in Utrecht, the canalside street where the cinema is located, that you notice that the Netherlands Film Festival is in full swing. In contrast to the International Film Festival in Rotterdam and the IDFA in Amsterdam, the event in Utrecht is a halfhearted affair. Not many representatives of the general public here. It’s more a festival for the ‘in-crowd’: Amsterdam moves to Utrecht for a week.
Fortunately, there is a bustling crowd outside the Rembrandt theater. The buzz at a première feels good. I am relaxed, confident; I did a test run this morning with Mark Glynne. Picture and sound are stunning.
Before I can think about it, I am engulfed by family, friends, familiar faces. Every one of them dear people. At the end I see my son, who has come up from France especially for the occasion. That’s where he lives. In France, the schools still teach about the major writers and philosophers who defined our Judeo-Christian culture. Who are partly responsible for the humanist democracy that we built, which is being tossed out a piece at a time by the left-wing church. Rousseau, Balzac, Voltaire, Zola: these are familiar names for a 14-year-old French boy. In the Netherlands, no one under the age of 30 even knows who Multatuli was!
My son has grown so big, over 14 years old now. A handsome lad. It is salutory to see that he is his own person, not dragged along into trends and insanity. Nature or nurture? My wife Juul is very involved in it. I sometimes have to bow out due to a busy work schedule. But I spent a huge amount of time with him in the past; that was a wonderful time. The unbearable ecstasy of fatherhood.
God, I love him so much. And to think that he nearly drowned. It is still one of my nightmares. We were in South France visiting the Dutch daughter, Maryvonne, of the famous English writer Jean Rhys. Still following me?
Jean Rhys (1890-1979) married an obscure Dutch writer who published under the pseudonym of Ed de Nève. That’s where the Dutch part comes in.
I was working on a film about her life and work: They destroyed all the roses. On the terrace of her Provençal villa, Maryvonne opened a bottle of rosé. My wife was talking to the woman’s husband. Rogi was poking about in the expansive garden; he was about two years old.
A charming tableau, carefree. A light breeze kept the temperature at a constant comfortable level; the scent of cedars mingling with the steam from a pot of bouillabaise bubbling away in the adjacent kitchen allayed all my fears. No, this cannot be reality. This is a French film from the 1970s starring Phillipe Noiret and Romy Schneider. No, life can't be that light.
And at the precise moment that the thought crossed my mind, I saw a tiny hand rise briefly above the edge of the pool and disappear. The world stood still for a moment. And again as if it were in a film, but now in slow motion, I leapt over the railing of the terrace, off a six-foot drop. Even before my feet hit the ground, I was moving towards the pool. I was floating; time no longer existed. Einstein, Newton, the laws of gravity were abolished. The space-time continuum ceased to exist. Briefly, it was mind over matter and physics no longer applied.
Outside myself, I landed on the blue tarp that kept leaves and insects out of the water. My weight crushed the canvas to the bottom of the pool. I saw Rogi suspended under the surface of the water, floating like a feather in midair. His innocent eyes were still free of any trace of panic. Of course, there’s papa! No room for doubt. I grasped his tiny body with both hands and lifted him above me with all my might. Water splashed in all directions. He laughed and squealed as if it were a game.
Four days later, I read a newspaper story about a child of four who had drowned in a pool. The Dutch family were vacationing in the Langedoc region.
As the lights dim slowly, the opening credits appear on the screen and the first sounds fill the theater, I squeeze my wife's hand briefly. She and Renske are the producers at Miroir Film. A few rows in front of us are Melle and Riekje. Without their contributions, this would not have been the film it is today.
Camera and editing are essential aspects of filmmaking. They are experts in their craft, and above all dear friends. Sander, Harold, Leo and Mark are here too. The only one missing is Paul, the composer of the film score. He is the artistic director of a jazz festival in the Doelen in Rotterdam, which happens to be at the same time as the première. A pity, but that’s just how it is.
For the first time, I sit back and take a relaxed look at my own film. A delightful feeling. The extraordinary thing is that the pace of the daily lives of the Inupiaq has set the pace of the film. Riekje and I did a good job on that. Sometimes it had to move very slowly, sometimes even agonizingly slowly. Rhythm, that’s the underlying theme in the film.
Vial of sand
When all of the people who worked on the film are on the stage and the applause comes, I am relieved and a bit melancholy. It’s over. A sort of farewell. Three and a half years I’ve been working on it and now I have to let it go. The film is going to lead a life of its own now, in the cinemas, and later on television. The film is going out into the world, standing on its own two feet. Like a child spreading its wings and heading off to lead its own life.
We all get a vial of sand from Juul, sand that I brought along from the island. Sand that will be disappearing under the waves in about ten years, going down with the island. I’ve said it before: everything changes, nothing stays the same. We’ll drink to that. With or without vouchers.
JAN LOUTER IN TALK SHOW HOSTED BY MATTHIJS VAN NIEUWKERK
Jan Louter in talk show hosted by Matthijs van Nieuwkerk
Jan Louter was a featured guest on Matthijs van Nieuwkerk’s talk show during the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht (September 2008). Watch the show [href="www.filmfestival.nl/festivaltv/talkshows/28-9" label="here"].
JAN LOUTER IN DE VOLKSKRANT
Journalist Bor Beekman interviewed director Jan Louter about The Last Days of Shishmaref for the Volkskrant. The article was published in the special supplement on the Netherlands Film Festival Utrecht 2008. Read the article here.
PREMIèRE THE LAST DAYS OF SHISHMAREF
Première of The Last Days of Shishmaref Saturday, 27 September Netherlands Film Festival Utrecht It’s almost time! Saturday, 27 September marks the première of The Last Days of Shishmaref at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht. The film plays at 7:30 p.m. in Rembrandt 1. It is still a surprise who will open the film. However, it is already clear that the film is in the running to be nominated for a Golden Calf. Other screenings of The Last Days of Shishmaref during the film festival: 28 September at 11.45 (Movies 2) 30 September at 19.30 (Rembrandt 1) 2 October at 19.30 (Rembrandt 2) The Netherlands Film Festival runs from 24 September through 3 October in Utrecht.
NOVA IN SHISHMAREF
On the evening of Saturday, 20 September at 22.15, Nova broadcast a report on the trip that Jan Louter (director) and Melle van Essen (cameraman) took to Shishmaref. View the Nova report [href="http://www.novatv.nl/page/detail/uitzendingen/6335" label="here"]. The aim of the trip was to let the Inupiat Eskimos see the documentary for themselves. The trip was filmed by Annephine van Uchelen (editor) and Ellen Brans (reporter/camerawoman) from Nova. Before the trip, Annephine saw The Last Days of Shishmaref and wrote a piece about it for glossy magazine [href="http://www.green2.nl/2008/09/vervolg-uit-green2-help-de-inuit-smelten-weg" label="Green2"]. What was it like to be in Shishmaref yourself?‘It was touching to see. Just like a refugee camp on a marshy island. Big piles of rubbish lying all around the houses. I think that it’s not cleared away because they know that they'll have to move in the end anyway. And there’s no money available to do the job right. Inside the tiny houses, too, there are enormous collections of things lying around. I myself live on a houseboat in Amsterdam, so I know how easily things pile up around you.’ How was your interaction with the islanders?‘Pretty quickly, the children were shouting greetings to us: ‘Hi Annephine, hi Ellen!’ and we were invited to a party at their home. The meal of seal or caribou didn’t appeal to me as a vegetarian, but naturally I anticipated that. I did eat some lovely, fresh-caught salmon.’ What did you miss the most? ‘A shower! Now, every time I crank open the faucet, I have so much more appreciation for it.’
THERE ARE NO GOODBYES
The day after the film premièred on Shishmaref, we sleep in a bit. By now, we are completely at home in Joel’s ‘shoebox’. His term for it is an apt description, because his tiny house doesn’t have room for much more than two mattresses.
After three days of hardly washing at all, I itch all over and the house is starting to smell a bit funny. An indefinable odor of sweat, urine and fried salmon. Melle probably left the lid off the ‘honeybucket’ (a large bucket topped by a toiled seat). Or he missed and peed beside the bucket! Or was that me? It’s a good thing there aren’t any women staying in the house; they’d be miserable.
After I make the coffee, I crawl back into my sleeping bag. Melle smokes a hand-rolled cigarette, strong, rich Van Nelle tobacco. In a flash, the smell of the tobacco arcs across a gap of nearly 50 years.
My father also smoked ‘the Widow’s Strength’, as a good port worker should – the slang term for strong tobacco means that it makes a cigarette so strong that only a widow who no longer cared for her own life would smoke it.
The penetrating scent of the dark, near-black tobacco filled the cramped spaces of my youth every day. We lived in the countryside near Rotterdam; our home was a wooden trailer in my grandfather’s orchard, surrounded by meadows. My mother was 18, my father 21 when I was born.
My parents were poor as church mice; there was no money to rent a brick house. Heat and light were powered by Butagas; the toilet was outside in a wooden shed where it was always dark – or you propped the door open during the day – and where the slightest breeze made the branches of the cherry tree bang terrifyingly against the roof.
Your bowel movements plopped into oblivion in the cesspit, which was drained once a year. To save gas, a single light bulb lit the cramped interior of the trailer; my mother hemmed trousers or darned socks by its dim light. When winter came, I had to sleep between my father and mother to ward off the cold: in those months, the metal headboard of the bed was fringed with icicles.
‘It was a hard life, but it was honest. A satisfying life.’ How often have I heard my mother say those words nostalgically? The winding country road, the meadows, the farms, the orchard, the trailer we lived in, all it of is gone now: swallowed up by residential developments and industry.
Some sense of the past, a smell, a certain way of life, I relive here on Shishmaref. Now that we are no longer filming and no one is taking care of us, I realize how much time the inhabitants of Shishmaref spend meeting their basic daily needs. You don’t really miss a thing until you don’t have it! Turning a faucet and seeing water flow out; a hot shower. Clean clothes. A bar, a restaurant.
Getting away from it all
Melle yanks me out of the past. ‘Filming is a disease,’ he says suddenly. ‘Now I finally don’t have a camera with me, I’m lying here contemplating all the scenes we filmed. Could we have done it better; was the light right?’
Melle is a fantastic cameraman, a perfectionist and a wonderful comrade. It’s a new experience for him, traveling and not working. He’s always on the road, heading off to Iran, Indonesia, South Africa; always filming.
And you rarely hear him complain, although he would sometimes prefer to stay with his wife Riekje in Amsterdam. Snuggled up together, instead of sleeping in a sleeping bag in a ramshackle cabin. Although we are very happy here. Away from it all, away from all the worries. How much have we gone into the red this time; will the film funds pay for our new plan? It never comes to an end. The same story every time, year after year. Sometimes I despair. Filming is wonderful, but everything that comes before is torture.
I pour myself another coffee and quickly crawl back into the warm sleeping bag; the wind is blowing outside and it's cold. I’m guessing 5°C (41°F). That’s nothing compared to the -40 degrees in March last year. We were heading out on snowmobiles to film Fred Charlie Weyiouanna and Mimic. There are several lakes about 15 km (10 miles) from Shishmaref. In the winter, they chop out chunks of ice to melt at home. That’s how they get their drinking water.
Sander, the other cameraman, had to put the film rolls in with his bare hands; after a minute his fingers were stiff with cold. It seemed like his blood was frozen. After shooting, Melle had no feeling in his hands either. Extremely dangerous; it marks the first stages of frostbite. That was the second time that I saw Melle panic.
The first time was in Thailand – impossible to imagine a greater contrast – when we were filming a snake charmer. The venom shooting from the gaping mouth of the cobra hit Melle’s hand when the camera was right next to the snake for a close shot. He truly thought for a moment that he would die, and so did I.
‘You know what I still think about sometimes?’ Melle asks. ‘That time in June when it was light 24 hours a day. We lost all sense of orientation. When we went to film the seal and walrus hunt, we were in those rickety boats on the ocean at 3 a.m. With the sun shining right in our faces. We were filming on 64 ASA and F4 stop! In the middle of the night!’
That was a dissociative experience. You lose all sense of time; you sleep at the strangest moments. The Inupiat call it ‘Eskimo time’. Simply put, it means that time does not exist. Time goes out for a stroll several months of the year.
That evening we take our leave of everyone in Shishmaref. And tomorrow we’ll be sitting in Nome for a few hours again, waiting for the flight to Anchorage. In Nome we go out for a hamburger, something I never do otherwise – only there. It has become a ritual. Every time we ate at Fat Freddy’s, a seedy little restaurant, really more of a big fast-food joint, with a view of the ocean. The patrons are rough laborers, mineworkers.
Fat Freddy, who more than lived up to his name, sat on a stool by the cash register all day chain-smoking. But a few days ago, on the trip home, Fat Freddy was not in his usual chair. Struck down by heart failure. It put us in a melancholy mood. Nome is just not the same without Fat Freddy. I suggest to Melle that we don’t go to the restaurant tomorrow, to show our respects to Fat Freddy. A protest against mortality.
I hate saying goodbye. I avoid it like the plague. Ardith once told me that Inupiaq has no word for it; I like that solution. Instead of saying goodbye, you say ‘until we meet again’. Whether there will actually be a next time is irrelevant. I prefer to live surrounded by illusions than to be confronted with stark reality.
Visionary writer Frans Kellendonk once referred to it, after converting to Catholicism, as ‘feigned sincerity’. ‘Of course I don’t believe in God, but I act as if I do.’ He wrote the beautiful novel Mystiek Lichaam (Mystical Body). I sincerely pretend that life is a barrel of laughs, even though I naturally know better.
SCREENING THE FILM IN SHISHMAREF
The gym slowly fills with people, from mothers with babies to the oldest inhabitants of Shishmaref. What beautiful faces the oldest villagers have, leathery tanned faces: hallmarks of a hard life. They were there in the days before electricity came to the island – just 35 years ago – no airstrip, no snowmobiles. They went out on the ocean in kayaks. They hunted the magnificently desolate snowfields behind teams of dogs pulling sleds. Dogs that now lie chained, their working days over. Once the elders have died, the Inupiaq culture will disappear into the shifting sands forever, leaving us only stories.
I am not truly at ease until the Weyiouanna family finally arrives. I kiss Ardith on both cheeks and shake Johnny’s hand, clapping him on the shoulder. Arnold Ollana and his mother Frances – seen in the film eating spaghetti – enter the room beaming with pleasure. Arnold’s face is flushed with excitement. Melle and I are not the only ones who are excited here; the feeling is naturally much stronger for everyone who is in the movie itself. Only now do I see that even Ardith is nervous; it’s very unlike the way that I know her. She almost always looks calm, exuding an almost Buddha-like serenity.
I can imagine the suspense; she let us into her life without hesitation, without holding anything back. We were allowed to film everything. But when the moment has actually arrived that you will see yourself projected on the big screen and you still don’t know exactly what the result will be, I can imagine that you feel as antsy as a cat on a hot tin roof.
Once everyone is seated – I’m guessing there are a good 300 people here – the school principal Joe Braach gives a brief introduction and hands the microphone over to me. I don’t remember exactly what I said anymore, but knowing myself and how touched I was by the big crowd, it was probably a bit pathetic. Of course I thanked the community of Shishmaref for their hospitality, which knew no bounds. Their contribution made filming a joyous event. Their unabashed willingness to allow the camera to be there at all times without being aware of its presence was what made the film the creation I had envisioned.
An intimate depiction of how people shape their lives when they face a threat from outside their influence. When the land where you were born is literally knocked out from under your feet.
Subliminally, The Last Days of Shishmaref is of course a film about transience and mortality. Everything changes, nothing stays the same; that was my motto. A worldview that is terrible and comforting at the same time. There is no stillness, only movement; it was Heraclitus who expressed that philosophy.
A famous quote often attributed to him is panta rhei, meaning that everything is in flux, in motion. Heraclitus believed that the world, the cosmos is always changing: ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.’ This aphorism was quoted by Plato in his writings on Heraclitus’ student Cratylus. But I strongly doubt whether these philosophical musings offer any comfort to the people of Shishmaref. They do not want change; they would prefer to stay on their island.
Anyway, back to the show. As the lights dimmed and the first images appeared on the screen, the room grew quieter and quieter. The only noises I heard were the occasional cries of children. Ardith and Johnny, Frances and Arnold were fascinated by what they saw on the screen. When Ardith’s first words boomed out of the speakers, my heart shrank. When Ardith introduces herself in the film, she also talks about her arranged marriage to Johnny.
She was only 16 years old and did not know what to expect. She says that she learned to respect him as a man and as a husband. But it was not her free choice. Would she have chosen him for herself? Isn’t this confidence from Ardith very painful for Johnny? Does she regret what she said? Cautiously, I glance at their faces, but their expressions revealed nothing. (A few days later, I told Ardith what I was thinking at that point and asked her if she had experienced it in the same way. She smiled and shook her head. ‘I would have wanted to leave the island and go to college, but that was not possible in my time. Certainly not for a woman… We are old now and will die together peacefully.’)
I am startled by a loud guffaw of laughter. In one scene, Frances explains that her children live off junk food. And that she has to buy them iPods and cell phones. Arnold and Frances laugh exuberantly when they see the scene. Suddenly I realize why Frances now looks much younger. She is wearing false teeth; in the film she was still missing all her front teeth.
I myself have to laugh every time – and this is no exception – at the scene in which Arnold and his little brother Amoz are sitting beside the collapsing house and listing all the people who moved to a different part of the island because of the encroaching sea. Still a hilarious moment in the movie. The Inupiat obviously agree. (Inupiat is the plural of Inupiaq.)
Halfway through the film, my uneasiness ebbs away: the concentration with which the audience are watching the movie makes me happy. I can shake off the nagging question of whether the movie would be interesting to the inhabitants of Shishmaref. Film is such a wonderful medium. The way that we have recorded their lives gives them a different perspective on their own reality. That is why it isn’t just the images of immense expanses of landscape and the hunt for caribou and walrus that are exciting to them - images that are fascinating to us because they are so unfamiliar - but also the cozy interior scenes. They see things in a new light; they’ve never looked at their own lives this way before!
When the lights come up after 90 minutes and the credits start scrolling down the screen, tentative applause starts and slowly crescendos. Ardith gives me a kiss; Johnny claps me on the shoulder. Melle also gets a kiss. It looks like he has tears in his eyes. I hear words like ‘beautiful, great film’. Perry embraces me: ‘the film is like our life’. It is the best compliment we could have gotten. Joe Braach, a colossal figure, comes to stand in front of me and shakes my hand. From the corner of my eye, I see Melle being showered with compliments. Joe says, ‘you have captured it all; what more can I say?’ I shake countless hands, calloused with labor. Over and over, we are asked if it is already out on DVD and if we have more posters. Melle gives me a thumbs-up. I nod. In this moment, I know what friendship is.
FIFTH VISIT TO SHISHMAREF
Weblog Jan Louter (director)
23 August 2008. For the fifth time, I'm on my way to Shishmaref, the diminutive island in the north of Alaska, rubbing against the underbelly of the Arctic Circle. The tiny island that I learned to love and that I sometimes despised. When it was so cold that I lost all feeling in my hands and feet, after a several-hour journey on the back of a snow scooter. Or when I wanted to take a hot shower and realized that there was no running water on the island. Or when I lay awake at night and doubted whether the film rolls would be able to withstand the extreme weather conditions.
But it is also the island that brings you back to a time that no longer exists where we come from. It brings you into contact with a primal feeling that still lies concealed deep within us. It is why we still fight wars, beat each other's brains in, and sometimes wake up in a panic. Life on Shishmaref is survival!
Trial by fire
Melle, my friend and cameraman, sits beside me in the plane. Together, we will be showing The Last Days of Shishmaref to the community. A trial by fire; if the villagers like the film, it will be a burden off my shoulders. Imagine if they didn't like it at all - that would be a disaster. Behind us in the tiny plane are Ellen and Annephine from Nova, who will be making a feature report about us and the showing. Good publicity for the film.
When the monotonous thrumming of the tiny plane's engines falls still, the landing strip lies before us. It feels like coming home. How different it was when I came here for the first time by myself three years ago. Back then, I didn't know anyone yet and the film still had to be made.
Jesus, how much has happened in that time. And yet, how incomprehensible life is; the same plane, the same little buildings, the same vistas. It no longer evokes that abandoned feeling of the early days. A form of emptiness and loneliness, that drives you apart like a wedge. But at the same time brings you to life. Why is it that I always yearn for the first time, when everything is still untouched? Pristine. Is it the longing of a romantic, or is it pathological?
No welcoming committee
When we get off the plane, Melle and I look at each other and laugh – it's just what we expected: no fanfare, no welcoming committee. No one at all, nothing – nada – not even Perry. Secretly, I had still hoped that he would be there. He was the person I had contacted from the Netherlands to rent two houses for us; there is no hotel on Shishmaref.
Once Ellen has set up the camera and the pilot has taken our baggage out of the tiny plane, Melle and I say the first words into Annephine's microphone: "Yes, we took this into account; the Inupiat culture is very different from ours. Most likely, everyone is hunting or laying out the fishing nets; the salmon are running. They dry the fish for the winter months, when it is harder to find food."
As we trudge through the shifting sand of the island, Perry comes to meet us. He calls out our names, a broad grin spreading across his sun-browned face. We hug: “It’s good to see you guys, welcome back home.” He carries Annephine and Ellen's suitcases to Dean's house. When the front door opens, a pungent sewer smell gushes out to meet us. The ladies put a brave face on it and open the windows, maintaining an expression of 'nothing's wrong here'.
Joel the cowboy
Melle and I sleep in Joel's house; he's off traveling. Joel is an important character in the film. We always call him 'the cowboy'. In the film, he refers to the little house where he lives with his young son Cody as his 'shoebox'. The description fits; there's not enough room in here to swing a cat. It just fits two mattresses. The view of the sea more than compensates for the lack of space. The waves break on the beach not 50 yards away. This means that we poop and pee on the edge of the ocean. (In case you didn't know, there are no toilets in the houses; the Inupiat use a bucket with a garbage bag as a liner. A new bag only goes into the bucket when the old one is full. That's why Dean's house stank pretty bad.)
Other than the smell of our own sweaty feet, our accommodations smell nice and fresh. Not ten seconds after Melle crawls into his sleeping bag, the tiny wooden house shakes on its foundations: a rattling snore reverberates through the small room. The air mattress I'm laying on has a slow leak; after fifteen minutes I am lying on the hard floor. Why didn't I stay home, with my wife and son?!
The following day – with bloodshot eyes from not sleeping enough, muscles still stiff from the night – Ellen films us hanging up one of the three posters designed by Yvo Zijlstra in the school. Looks wonderful. Melle writes the date and location of the showing on the empty white space with a thick marker. We hang the other two posters in the two stores that Shishmaref can boast.
We spend the whole afternoon handing out flyers at other strategic locations on the island. It's the first time I have ever done something like this. I feel just like an activist, and I hate activists. Activists always think that they're in the right. But being on the right side is always much more complex than that. Fortunately, we get a lot of responses from the villagers. "Nice poster, good title...yes, we will come." The news slowly starts buzzing around: the unofficial world première in the gym of Shishmaref's school.
When we test the equipment at the end of the afternoon, when school lets out, that's when Melle and I really got enthusiastic: the school's beamer is surprisingly excellent, and it turns out that there is also a big projection screen hanging there. It has big brown stains on it from the damp, but still! Just to make sure, I had packed a digital projector myself, but it can stay in the box. What does come in handy are the speakers that I bought especially for this occasion. You need at least 70 Watts to fill a room. Picture and sound are stunning. Melle and I pat each other on the backs and are as gleeful as children.
Once the big evening starts, we hear that – contrary to earlier reports – Bingo is still on the schedule. Painful, because now we have to compete with the Bingo-addicted Inupiat. Why do they only adopt the bad habits from American culture? Drinking cola, eating junk food. Not getting much exercise. The Bingo evening is like having the European Football Championships on the other channel in the Netherlands – or the Super Bowl in the heartland of Texas. I'm worried about how many people will come. Maybe we shouldn't have come at all; why go to all that trouble for just a few people? These thoughts are running through my head.
To be continued.
AL GORE AND OPRAH WINFREY
Weblog of Jan Louter (director)
About three more weeks until the world première of my film The last days of Shishmaref: on Saturday evening, 27 September at 7:30 p.m. at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht. And the film will be in cinemas from 9 October onwards.
The date is coming closer and closer and so much still needs to be done. The stress is building. The trailer that will be shown in movie theaters from mid-September is not finished yet. And material from the trailer still has to be sent it for a commercial on National Geographic. The editor who will be putting the commercial together is waiting anxiously for the footage.
Extra scene with Al Gore
In addition, I decided a month ago to add another scene to the film. That meant extra work and lots of hassle, because a 35mm print had already been made. But it's better for the film, so we're doing it. Juul and Renske, the producers at Miroir Film, agreed with my assessment. It concerned a scene in which Al Gore – yes, the Al Gore from An Inconvenient Truth – is a guest on Oprah Winfrey's show for an hour to talk about climate change. On that show, they spend several minutes talking specifically about Shishmaref.
In the clip, Gore says that the Inupiaq community on Shishmaref represents the first climate refugees. In his own words, he says: "These are Americans driven out of their homes by global warming, right now... and to move the community to safer ground will cost 100 million dollars."
This scene gives the film another push, an adrenaline boost, at exactly the right moment. The scene is also strong on content; it gives more allure and credibility to everything the main characters tell in the film. Something along the lines of: it's in the newspaper, so it must be true!
Claims for money
You may be thinking, if it's such a good scene, then why wasn't it included in the cut from the start? The answer is that it was extremely difficult to arrange to get the rights to it, and the producers were afraid that Gore and/or Oprah would ruin us all by suing us for a huge damage claim. A claim like that can involve a lot of money. A few hundred thousand dollars is nothing. But we can't imagine that Gore and Oprah would do that to us. And since Maurits Groen (Milieu en Communicatie BV) is bringing Al Gore to the Netherlands again on 14 October, I might be able to ask him personally to resolve this issue.
By now, the first interviews are behind us. A big article with photos will be published in the new glossy magazine Green.2 (available in stores from 11 September, www.green2.nl). It's a magazine on climate and sustainability. Fun interview to do. Boris Beekman, head of film for the Volkskrant daily newspaper, stopped by and will be writing an article for a 'special' that the Volkskrant will be running during the Film Festival.
Now that the process of making the film is within a hair's breadth of being done, I'm noticing that I enjoy talking about it. The questions that are asked confirm how intense some of the scenes feel. The hunting scenes in particular are very moving. You see life flowing into death in a few sentences. It confronts you with your own mortality.
Almost all the September issues of the major magazines will be publishing reviews, short descriptions of the film or interviews. Renske, Gideon, and Petra from our distributor Cinemien have been putting every effort into it – and are still working flat-out – to get public attention for the film. Engagement is strong, which is a pleasant surprise for me.
So I'm hoping that Cinemien will distribute my next film as well and that all the efforts lead to many people coming to theaters to see the film. The film deserves it, but the Eskimos of Shishmaref do too. Because if the film is a success in the Netherlands, there is a good chance that worldwide distribution will follow. And that in turn would mean that the problem would get through to Washington – and hopefully also to the White House. Maybe Obama – let's hope that he makes it – has more interest in his subjects than Bush.
More on that next week, when I report on my trip to Shishmaref, when I traveled there with Melle van Essen (cameraman) to show the film to the villagers. Every move was followed and filmed by a team from Nova.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Weblog Jan Louter
It is the longest day of the year here, too. Day and night no longer exist; everything runs together. The light is just as bright at three a.m. as it is at midday. The comforting muted sound of playing children flows in through the open window of my tiny bedroom like scraps of stray snowflakes, even though it is the middle of the night. Where am I? Am I dreaming?
We constantly have to adjust to the day and night rhythm of the Inupiat. They sleep and eat whenever they feel like it. There is no structure at all. Things keep going this way until the end of September, when winter starts again and the days suddenly shrivel up to a single hour of daylight. When I was here with Melle at the end of November 2006 to scout locations, it only started to get light around 12 noon; less than three hours later it was dark again. I'm not sure which is more annoying. There are people who have gone completely insane because the sun never sets. Here on the island, I know a woman who is taking strong sleeping pills to sleep an occasional hour at all. Shuttering the windows had no effect.
We just completed another couple of days with great shooting time. Also a couple of interesting interviews, like the one with Joel. He is one of the main characters, who we went hunting with in the winter. Joel is half Inupiat, half American. A real cowboy. He has been married twice and has six children. Since 1987, he's been living in Shishmaref, where his mother is from. At first he lived in a little house near the sea. The changing climate made it too dangerous to live there; six houses had to be moved. Including the house of Johnny and Ardith, the other main characters in the film. Joel now lives in a tiny house (one room) with his three-year-old son, in a safer place. The mother of Cody, his youngest child, died during a snow scooter accident. Joel went off the road at high speed going around a curve; his wife broke her neck and died on impact. He is still all broken up about it. If he didn't have his little boy, he would have drunk himself to death, he told us during the recordings. The little guy keeps him alive. It's his only purpose in life. I like Joel a lot; he's very straightforward and has had a bizarre life. His stories are fantastic to listen to. Yes, Joel is a 'tough guy'.
After the snow melts and most of the ice in the lagoon and the ocean is liquid again, only then do you really feel like you're on an island. In the winter, it was an immense expanse of ice; sea and island inextricably intertwined like a couple in love. We look out over the Chukchi Sea. In the distance, a boat is sailing toward us. They are returning from hunting walrus and seal. When they pull the boat up onto the beach, the waiting women immediately expertly carve the dead animals into pieces. Melle films the bloody spectacle from very close by. The chunks of black meat are suspended on wooden racks to dry in the salty wind. This is how they preserve the meat for the winter, when it is hard to buy food. This has been happening for centuries. The Inupiat have probably been living in Shishmaref for four thousand years. It is a very old settlement.
Greetings from Jan Louter and the crew.
BACK IN A DIFFERENT SHISHMAREF
Weblog Jan Louter
We are on our way to Shishmaref for the second recording period. We are all hugely looking forward to it again. When we arrive in Nome after 24 hours of flying and an overnight stay in Anchorage (Alaska), we are immediately recognized at the little airfield. "Ah, there's the film crew again." We already had great assistance at Schiphol because our huge quantity of baggage and film materials were transported to Anchorage without much extra expense, and now the people at Frontier Air were a huge help to get everything into the small aircraft. It all fits, but only just.
As we soar above the deserted landscape, I have to blink my eyes a few times: when I look between the gaps in the cloud cover, I see that the breathtaking expanse of a few months ago has been transformed into a broad brown mass. The snow has melted. How things are on Shishmaref right now, I don't know exactly. The latest reports on the Internet: 7 degrees above zero. The ice is becoming thin; the sea hasn't opened up yet. Our local producer, Perry Weyiouanna, had told us this, followed by a terrible story. A tragedy took place on Shishmaref just a little while ago. Norman (25) had gone out on the sea on his snow scooter to hunt walrus and seal. On the way back, he fell through the ice with his snow scooter and drowned. The heavy clothing he wore made it impossible to stay above water and the cold paralyzed him completely after a while. His body was found and buried a week ago.
My assistant and executive producer Renske had called from the Netherlands to ask Perry to prepare the two little houses we would be renting. On Shishmaref, there is no hotel, no restaurant, no café. Only two stores that sell the most necessary items. Alcohol isn't available either; there is a strictly enforced prohibition on alcohol on Shishmaref. Violation means at least one day and one night in the cell, even for visitors. When we arrived, it turned out that the houses hadn't been cleaned. I really hadn't expected anything different. The Inupiat prefer to take everything easy. And a request from far away doesn't really have an impact. In addition, cleaning up means something different in Shishmaref than it does in the Netherlands. The houses are fairly chaotic. Now that the snow has vanished from the island, the enchantment of the immense white landscape that we had left behind us in March was shattered. Instead of breathtaking snow-covered beauty, we found a collection of discards. Hundreds of broken snow scooters, quads, old trucks and digging machines are standing or lying scattered between the houses, rusting away. Skins from shot caribou or polar bears are hanging out to dry, alongside black lumps of seal meat. Here and there, a rack of antlers with the head still attached stick out of the garbage. Glassy eyes gaze at me blankly. The curious thing is that the intensity of it all creates an impression of 'the beauty of decay'. Wonderful to film. A huge contrast from the winter months.
It is a relief not to have to wear all those thick layers of clothing anymore. And no gloves. Filming has become much easier as a result. But we all look back on the period in March with great enjoyment. The difference in temperature between then and now is nearly 50 degrees Celsius. Just as an example. Now we are confronted with another phenomenon: it doesn't get dark. It is light 24 hours a day and a weak sun shines all the time. At 3 a.m., the children are still playing basketball or strolling around on the island. Sleep is very hard to find. You're dog-tired, but something undefined keeps you from going to bed and going to sleep. And once you go to bed, sleep is almost impossible. Melle and Sander have covered their whole room in a sort of black plastic. I'm going to do the same, because otherwise you get completely exhausted. The children, but also the parents, just sleep whenever they feel like it. Generally cat naps. The fact that it never gets dark is naturally great for filming. We're going to get started again tomorrow.
I'll send another message in a few days. Greetings from Shishmaref from Melle (camera), Sander (camera assistant), Harold (sound), Renske (producer), Dana (photographer) and of course me.
THE HUNT FOR FOOD
Weblog Jan Louter
The Inupiat diet still consists largely of seal, walrus, fish and caribou (wild reindeer). Vegetables and fruit are not available here. Nothing grows here, and there is hardly anything for sale in the store.
If it is flown in, it is beyond the financial means of most of the families; a head of iceberg lettuce costs $7, and even then half of it is generally already rotten. I take a pill every day to make up for the lack of vitamin C. The Eskimos wait until August, when the berries that grow wild on the tundra are ripe.
Because the Weyiouanna family – the most important family we portray in the film – is almost out of meat, we will be going hunting with them for three days. That is quite an undertaking in its own right, but if you want to film what's happening, it becomes an expedition. Fred Charlie, Perry Weyiouanna, Fred Goodhope Jr. and Joel Magby are the hunters. Joel and Perry are also our local producers. With the crew, that makes nine people. That means we need at least five snow scooters with sleds, clothing, food and drink, and cooking gear. The preparations look a lot like two families going camping together for a month. The list of things that have to be taken along is endless.
Renske has already been negotiating about the rental price of the snow scooters for days. The amounts vary from $100 to $300 a day. Pretty pricey, if you consider that a new snow scooter costs $3000. Everyone is trying to take advantage of the situation, and no wonder. Whether or not it is justified, in the eyes of the Inupiat we are the 'white men' with the money. In the end, we agree on a reasonable amount. However, it turns out later that we have to pay the repair costs for the two snow scooters that break down on the way. The concept of 'rental' can be explained in different ways. The result of the difference is a total of about $1000. All in all, it turned out to be an expensive ride after all.
We go to Serpentine Hot Springs, about 50 miles to the south of Shishmaref. The latest reports stated that the caribou were headed in that direction. There is a hut there where we can spend the night. When we leave the village and Renske waves us off, we have about five hours of travel ahead of us. The layers of clothing, thick gloves, hats, face protectors and ski goggles make us unrecognizable to each other. I climb on the back of Joel's scooter. We are the last in line. The farther we go from Shishmaref, the poorer visibility becomes. The unruly wind blows the powdery snow into the air. I stare past Joel's back into a wall of white; the horizon is nowhere to be seen. How Perry can keep following the path is a mystery to me. I am bounced back and forth and have to use all my strength not to fall off the snow scooter. After an hour, the weather clears. The sky is blue, the sun is shining brightly. We stop to take a number of shots. The cameras and lenses are packed into special boxes. Along the way, the temperature may go as high as -35 degrees. Depending on the direction of the wind. We get a couple of great shots of the hunters on the way to Serpentine Hot Springs. It is an impressive sight to see them speeding past: Joel looks a bit like Harrison Ford in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', gazing into infinity with his rifle slung diagonally across his chest.
The 'cabin' is nothing more than a roof and walls made of wood. Joel lights the tiny oil heater and makes a simple meal of rice and caribou. We are all tired from the journey and go to sleep early. Melle, Sander, Perry and Joel are sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor. We are on a pre-war bed with a layer of foam rubber. It's like lying in a hammock; the bed has absolutely no spring left. I wake up every hour. Sometimes the cause was a cacophony of snoring. Sometimes it was the pain in my back. Dana Lixenberg (photographer) was completely stiff when we woke up. She is the only woman in the company, but she's holding her own. She is taking photos for publicity, a poster and a book. When Dana takes a photo of someone, it's always extraordinary. As if the person briefly departs from reality and is captured at exactly that moment. In a month or two – once Dana has developed and sorted her 4x5 photos - a number will be posted on the site and it will be clear what I mean.
Fred Goodhope sees four caribou on the flank of a hill. We approach them slowly and hide behind the rocks. We can see them clearly now. They are burrowing through the snow with their muzzles, foraging for moss. One of the animals lifts his head in our direction. Does it suspect something? Life and death are just a few seconds from each other: Fred Charlie aims and a shot rings out. The beasts stiffen and run away. One caribou is less quick. A second shot follows. The innocent animal stumbles forward, sinks to his knees, rises one more time and then collapses. The snow colors red. Melle is excited; he filmed it with a telephoto lens. "It looks like The Deerhunter." A bit later, we are all slightly shaken. On the one hand, it was an exceptional experience; on the other hand, we feel compassion for the lovely beast lying there lifeless in the snow. Torn away from the others. Was it a family? Are the father and mother caribou missing their child now? I am compelled to think of my wife and small son. Death is unbearable, and life is too. If I could just stop time. Tie it up forever. No past, no future.
'Just a crack of light between two eternities of darkness.'
Greetings from Shishmaref.
TIME HAS A DIFFERENT DIMENSION HERE
Weblog Jan Louter
We were so excited a few days ago. Renske (executive producer) had taken the first 21 rolls of film to Technicolor in Vancouver (a 12-hour journey; there is no closer lab) to have them developed and prepared for scanning.
The tests showed that the film was all fine. A great relief. A great deal can go wrong when you're filming, especially in extreme conditions. There was a cable visible in the side of the image on one roll, but that would probably disappear once the film was cleaned up. She'll be leaving for Canada again today, with 42 rolls this time. We will have the test results on Monday afternoon. We will keep our fingers crossed and keep you posted.
The Netherlands is so far away! I have never before felt that sense so strongly in my many travels. It is probably because of the snow-covered, empty landscapes, some of which hardly have a horizon. They are immense still-life paintings. There is no movement. No cars, planes, trees. No people, no animals. It is nothing and everything in a single image. Life is time. And time has a different dimension here, as if time is frozen here. Difficult to describe it precisely in one stolen hour. My mind is overflowing will everything that has to be arranged. The days are filled with work and sleep, and even in my sleep I am working. I am suddenly reminded of the lovely lines by the poet J. C. Bloem: 'Thinking of death I cannot sleep, not sleeping I think of death.' In some way, the landscape reflects transience and mortality. Maybe that's why.
Filming on the edge of the Arctic Circle is fascinating. Every shot we take requires effort. The cold makes just changing a lens a huge undertaking. We never make the schedule that I put together every day. Improvisation, that's what it comes down to. Everything that was conceived of in the Netherlands is different here anyway. Everything you touch is freezing, icy-cold. Bare hands could freeze in just a matter of minutes, so to speak. Working with thick mittens on is undoable. Sander (Melle's camera assistant) puts a brave face on it. He is suffering the most. Nothing is too much for him, there's never a cross word. I realize that over the years of collaboration and friendship with Melle and Sander, we have developed a stunning professional routine. Just a single word, a single glance is enough. That gives me a good feeling. And we always have lots of fun. If it's no fun, it will rarely be a good film, is my conviction.
We filmed a meeting of the 'erosion and relocation coalition' yesterday. About ten Inupiat men and women sat in a dilapidated hall to discuss the state of affairs. The coalition is responsible for the big move to the mainland, which has to take place in a few years. I am impressed by what Tony and Lucy have achieved in a few years. They have succeeded at getting this insignificant little island – not even a pinprick on the map – into the international news. All across the world, Shishmaref has become the symbol of global warming. When I first contacted Tony in January 2005, only a few articles had been written: the first in the New York Times. Over two years later, nearly every newspaper and magazine has done a feature on it. It has even come to the point that Mayor Stanley Tocktoo flew to Washington to notify several senators about the state of affairs. That was on the day that Al Gore addressed Congress. He gave a speech pleading to turn the tide and take steps to reduce CO2 emissions. A plea in favor of a change in mentality. Stanley tells me that there was a great deal of media interest. Not just from newspapers, but also from television stations. He was interviewed by ABC News, which did a feature on Shishmaref in the framework of Al Gore's speech. The reporter had spent a day on the island, snapped a few pictures and talked to a few people. Tony and Lucy have achieved their goal: political attention. Preferably from Bush, although they all think he's a worthless president. A president who would rather focus on the war in Iraq than on the problems of his own people. I have a great deal of respect for what the coalition has achieved in a few years, all with very limited resources. And they don't even have fast Internet.
In the evening we filmed the bingo game – the only pastime other than watching TV. Young and old alike play the well-known game very seriously. It is a serious sport and considerable amounts are bet. It is interesting to note that the somewhat poorer people gamble much more: hope springs eternal. The bingo hall looks like a film set from the 1950s American Midwest. Wonderful to film. Johnny Weyiouanna, our 71-year-old main character, uses a giant marker to draw dots on the numbers on the form. Suddenly I hear him shout 'Bingo'. Later I heard that the family (they almost all play) had won $1400 that week. But according to son Perry, who has an aversion to the game, they lose more than they ever win. It's the law of the gambler. According to Perry, bingo is why family life has disappeared. Mothers and fathers pay much less attention to their children. They are already left alone from a young age, so they go to bed very late. As a result, they show up for school the next day too late, or not at all. Absenteeism is huge among the children. The longer you spend in this small, closed community, the more the romantic image I had of Eskimos crumbles. The disappearance of the island is not just a metaphor for the disappearance of their traditional culture, but a bitter reality. And reality is always unbearable, which is why I believe in the power of the imagination. More next week. By the way, the coldest night last week was -32 degrees.
A ROCK-HARD FAIRYTALE
Weblog Jan Louter
It is evening, but it is still not completely dark yet. We hear shouting outside. Snow scooter motors are revving. Perry, our local producer, storms into the house – a polar bear has been sighted not 500 meters from the island. When we reach the coast, we hear several loud bangs.
The lights of the snow scooters are heading towards us. We all run towards where they are coming into the settlement. An enormous bear is lying on the sled, with blood flowing out of his mouth. Huge claws the beast has, a single blow and you're done for. They are deadly dangerous; unlike the brown bear, they eat people. The school has posters hanging everywhere warning people not to go out on the ocean alone and unarmed. Sander and Melle had planned to start walking in the direction of Russia a few days from now to start taking photos of the island. You don't want to think about what could have happened. I can see the newspaper report now: "While shooting the documentary 'The last days of Shishmaref', well-known cameraman Melle van Essen and his assistant Sander Roeleveld were devoured by a polar bear."
Leo, our soundman, summarizes life here in a single phrase: a rock-hard fairytale. Once the polar bear is lying on the snow, we can touch it. That's a strange sensation; I've never touched a polar bear before. Tough, thick hair. Sharp teeth. There is something sad about seeing such a magnificent beast lying there lifeless. How many seals does he eat a day, anyway? And how many fish? Nature is eat and be eaten. Dennis Sinnok puts the point of his knife on the polar bear's throat to cut the hide away. The hide will be buried under the ground, where the insects will eat all the traces of fat off the hide. After that, it will be washed using a special technique. A hide will bring in $3000. The legs are used to make soup, a delicacy here on Shishmaref. After two hours, the polar bear is unrecognizable, cut to pieces. The older generation loves the meat; it has a strong gamey flavor.
Tomorrow we will be filming in the house of the main characters: Johnny and Ardith Weyiouanna. It's a teensy-tiny house stuffed with clothing and items that aren't immediately identifiable; it comes across as slightly chaotic. More about our experiences next week.
Weblog Jan Louter
The many impressions are overwhelming. I'm not sure where to start, but let's start with the cold. I had never before experienced temperatures of 25 degrees below zero. On the snow scooter, the biting wind makes the temperature feel ten degrees colder.
I am on the back, and no part of my body is left uncovered by the specially purchased clothing. All the layers we're wearing make us look like Michelin men. We are on our way to shoot the first film images, very exciting. Will the camera be able to resist the extreme cold? And how will we do in these conditions? Our camera, the Aaton, was specially prepared by the factory to be able to keep filming in extremely cold conditions: using different oil, axles and ball bearings. Melle and Sander conducted a test in the Netherlands in the freezer of a slaughterhouse. The camera stood there overnight and they used it to shoot three rolls in the morning. After it was developed, the film material turned out to be fine, but the cold-storage chamber never went below -18 degrees.
Now that we are driving through the fairytale landscape, I am enthralled by an intense feeling of happiness; it seems like a dream. It took nearly two years to get the financing sorted. Two years! Filmmaking means staying the course, is what I say. Juul Kappelhof, our producer, clamped down like a pit bull and wouldn't let go. She was able to find not only LLiNK, but also several funds and private investors. A great achievement. The preparations were also a hellish task. Everything on Shishmaref is different, nothing happens automatically. There is no water, no drains and no flush toilets.
We are filming Fred Charlie Weyiouanna; he and Mimic are on their way to a lake where they get their drinking water. They chop huge chunks out of the ice and load them onto a sled. Hard for a few days of drinking water. Sander has to change a film roll with thin gloves on. After a few minutes, he already has cold hands and needs to pull the thick mittens back on. Melle is also having a hard time working. With thin gloves it's too cold; with mittens on, he can't operate the camera. Juul made a special bag for Leo, the soundman, for his Qantar. She made it out of an old, worn fur coat that she bought at the Rotterdam flea market for €10. The bag makes sure that the machine keeps running.
After half an hour of filming, we are all jumping around. Our blood isn't flowing anymore; it's as thick as pancake syrup. Will we get used to the temperatures? We still have four weeks to go…
THE FIRST DAYS IN SHISHMAREF
Weblog Jan Louter (director)
The major project is about to start. We will be departing to Shishmaref for five weeks to film. It will be five weeks of foregoing creature comforts, because there is no restaurant, no hotel, no café, no fresh vegetables and no alcohol in the store. There is nothing. Well, at least none of the Western products we're used to. For the coming five weeks, seal, caribou (wild reindeer) and fish will be on the menu. Despite this prospect, we are really looking forward to it, due to the fantastic inhabitants and a breathtaking, enchanted, snowy landscape.
In January 2005, I read an article in the French newspaper Libération about an island in the north of Alaska that will be swallowed up by the sea in ten years due to global warming. We worked two years to get the documentary off the ground. Broadcasting company LLiNK was enthusiastic from the start, but the funding was far from easy. The huge distance and the extreme cold make it a logistically complicated project, and therefore expensive.
Cameraman Melle van Essen, executive producer Renske Meertens and I are traveling on ahead. Soundman Leo French and camera assistant Sander Roeleveld will be following in a few days. We have two days in Anchorage, the biggest city in Alaska, to arrange a thousand and one things. When we walk out of the hotel to the rental car in the early morning, before sunrise, a biting cold wind snatches the breath from our mouths. It is 15 degrees below zero, but it feels much colder. We might as well get used to it now, because the latest weather report that reached us said it was 25 degrees below zero on Shishmaref! Our purchases from the Netherlands are coming in handy; we have the best coats, gloves and clothing available for use in extremely cold weather conditions.
First we pay a visit to Kevin Tripp; 120 rolls of Fuji film were delivered to him from the Netherlands by a courier service that specializes in film. When we see the boxes standing there unharmed, we sigh with relief. At Melle's request, Florian from Fuji put a roll of photographic film into every box. For each box, Melle takes the roll of film out and photographs the label. That's our only option for checking that the material hasn't gone through the X-ray and been damaged as a result. Just imagine, you develop all the rolls of film when you get home, and they turn out to be damaged and unusable; it's the nightmare of every cameraman and director. Fortunately, all the photos turn out fine in the photo lab.
We drive to Ted Stevens International Airport in our Jeep Cherokee. 400 kilos of film and lighting equipment has been flown in from Amsterdam. Our disappointment is intense when a man who looks like a cowboy tells us that our cargo is still sitting in a warehouse somewhere, when it should actually already have arrived in Nome. Our local producer Perry Weyiouanna has flown from Shishmaref to Nome especially to pick up the valuable equipment (lenses, film cameras, a huge set of lights and tripods) and to make sure that it is handled with care. Perry is waiting there now, without knowing that nothing will be arriving. The cargo plane was broken. According to Jim, the aircraft date back to the Second World War, but they still fly fine. We just happen to have bad luck, Jim assures us. And when will the equipment get there? Once the plane is fixed, it will head out for Nome.
Renske wants to go back to the hotel to make a call. Scott from Frontier Airlines, who will ultimately need to fly us to Shishmaref, needs to be notified that the transport is delayed. It will be at least two more days. I feel sorry for Perry, who is sleeping in a tent somewhere in Nome (it is 25 to 30 degrees below zero there at night). There were no more hotel rooms available in Nome, because just when our cargo was scheduled to arrive, the winner of the 2007 Iditarod sled dog race is expected to arrive at the finish line. The Iditarod is a heroic 1160-mile journey from Anchorage to Nome with dogs pulling a sled, just like in the days when Eskimos still lived a completely traditional lifestyle. The race could be compared to the Elfstedentocht skating race, a test of endurance that takes the skaters past eleven cities traveling on frozen canals and waterways – but then for 15 days in a row.
Sitting exhausted in the restaurant that evening with a plate of exceedingly delicious sushi and a glass of hot saké, we raise a toast to the safe arrival of the cargo. We have an extra glass of the rice wine; in two days, we'll be in Shishmaref and we'll have to do without all our Western overindulgence. We can't wait!
FILM FESTIVALS UPDATE
Since its première at the Netherlands Film Festival in September 2008, the film has been shown at nearly 40 festivals all over the world: from Europe to North America, from China to Australia. A few examples: AFI FEST (American Film Institute), Los Angeles, USA CMS Vatavaran Film Festival, New Delhi, India Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Greece Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, New York, USA Queens International Film Festival, New York, USA Golden Panda Awards, China Beverly Hills Film Festival, Los Angeles, USA Green Planet Blues Film International, Romania
FILM BY JAN LOUTER
The Last Days of Shishmaref - A documentary about the first victims of global warming.
The film The Last Days of Shishmaref takes place on the island of Sarichef, which is part of Alaska. Sarichef is located slightly south of the Arctic Circle in the Chukchi Sea. A major drama is rapidly unfolding in this 49th state of the USA as a result of the global warming which now threatens the world.
Director Jan Louter and cameraman Melle van Essen traveled to the island to record the traditional lifestyle of a community of Inupiaq Eskimos, which is now in jeopardy. Their centuries of tradition will probably be lost forever if they are forced to settle on the mainland.
Despite the alarming situation, this film is not a political manifesto. It paints a visually striking, intimate portrait of an exceptional society that expresses the complex connections between man and his natural environment. The people of Shishmaref are proud and independent, keeping as closely as possible to the traditions that define their lives. There is no room for superficial sentimentality on the island. Nevertheless, the impending and inevitable farewells have inspired a new awareness of important values and underlying emotions. By portraying these aspects, the documentary touches on universal themes. What do identity, dignity, transience, and mortality mean when the land where your forefathers were born may be lost to you forever?
Cinematic release in the Netherlands: 9 October 2008
Length: 95 min.
Format: 35 mm
BIOGRAPHY JAN LOUTER
Jan Louter (Hoogvliet, 1954) now has 25 documentaries to his name, varying in length from 50 to 80 minutes. Made possible in part by various film foundations, his documentaries have aired on public broadcasting stations (NPS, VPRO and AVRO in the Netherlands).
Many of his long and short documentaries have been displayed at national and international film festivals and sold to foreign TV stations. His film A sad flower in the sand – about the work of writer John Fante – aired on national TV in the USA. The film received a special mention from the jury that the 15th AFI film festival in Los Angeles (2001).
Louter has documented various writers and artists, including a number of major Dutch authors such as Jan Wolkers (De onverbiddelijke tijd, 1996) and Gerrit Komrij (De gelukkige schizo) and artist Jan Monteyn (Love me or leave me, 2005).
Jan Louter creates documentaries for a broad audience, documentaries that appeal to the imagination both visually and conceptually. The viewer is challenged to let go and be swept up in the story. The influence that the past has on the present is a recurring theme in all his films.
Director: Jan Louter
Director of photography: Melle van Essen
Camera assistant: Sander Roeleveld
Sound: Leo Franssen & Harold Jalving
Editor: Riekje Ziengs
Music: Paul M. van Brugge
Sounddesign: Mark Glynne
Executive producer: Renske Meertens
Producer: Juul Kappelhof
FILM FESTIVAL TOUR
Nederlands Film Festival Utrecht, 2008; Internationale Documentaire Festival Amsterdam, 2008; International Film Festival Rotterdam, 2009; Zagreb Ekofilm Festival, 2009; Cambridge Film Festival, U.K., 2009; Bleu Ocean Film Festival, Tampa, USA, 2009; Atlantic Film Festival, Halifax Canada, 2009; Bay Street Film Festival, Canada, 2009; Gotham Screen Film Festival, New York, 2009; Radar Film Festival, Hamburg, Germany, 2009; Festival Européen des 4 écrans, Paris, 2009; Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival, New York, 2009
DVD FOR SALE
AFI FEST Los Angeles - Special Jury Mention Award, 2008; Int.Film Festival Anchorage - Best Feature Documentary, 2008; ONFilm Festival, Virginia - Best Feature Documentary&Best Environmental Documentary, 2009; Festival International du Film Insulaire - Best Film Île d’Or, 2009.