Kivalina is an observational portrait of Inupiaq Eskimo people trapped on a disappearing island in Arctic Alaska. Told with intimate access and cinematic imagery, the film explores the community’s plight to survive in a landscape and a system that is failing them.
In the following UNFILTERED blog post, filmmaker Gina Abatemarco shares reflections about her journey and the community’s struggles.
Aerial of Kivalina (Credit: Gina Abatemarco & Zoë White)
I first came to know of the island of Kivalina after stumbling onto a shocking article in The Los Angeles Times about a tiny island disappearing due to climate change. What was meant to be a casual read of the morning paper ultimately came to change the course of the next several years of my life.
Gina looking at wild tundra plants with Joe and Lona Swan (Credit: Gina Abatemarco & Zoë White)
I began shooting in Kivalina in 2008 with funding from the Berlinale’s Berlin Today Award with hopes of a triumphant climate change narrative ending in the relocation of Kivalina. I was incredibly naïve. The community of Kivalina had spent generations trying to relocate, with early advocates since deceased. The U.S and Alaskan state government were not in any hurry to relocate this community which they had a part in settling on an unsustainable barrier island.
Looking at family pictures with Loretta Hawley and her grandson Zachariah Hawley Onalik (Credit: Gina Abatemarco & Zoë White)
Instead of filming what we hoped would be a story about Kivalina’s relocation, Cinematographer Zoë White and I found ourselves filming the erection of a rock sea wall along Kivalina’s fragile coast. A project that despite the communities pleas to relocate, would cement the Kivalina in place for what could be another decade or more. With no political narrative to shoot, the film shifted gears. Instead of waiting for the government to show up, we began shooting the daily lives of two families in Kivalina who allowed us to work inside their homes. We shot hundreds of hours of footage, especially during the Arctic summers with 24 hours of day light at our disposal. We witnessed the daily hardships of living with no running water, no space to expand despite growing families, and the emotional complexity of making sense of a changing Inupiaq culture. Our time shooting in Kivalina was a deeply moving and intimate experience.
Zoe White and elder Lucy Adams (Credit: Gina Abatemarco & Zoë White)
What made a deep impression on me over the years of shooting, was the time Zoë and I spent documenting the Inupiaq subsistence traditions. To experience the Arctic seasons, to follow the animals, and to harvest from the land with the community of Kivalina was a privilege that I will never forget. Devastatingly, as I began to get closer to understanding the Inupiaq subsistence tradition and Kivalina’s interdependence on the Arctic landscape, I also understood how fatally threatened it was.
Gina and Zoe with Tillman Adams holding up a newspaper (Credit: Gina Abatemarco & Zoë White)
It is an incredibly timely moment to have a national broadcast of Kivalina on America ReFramed. For an audience, Kivalina is a complex and often heartbreaking portrait not just of Kivalina, but of our country, the condition of our planet, and of America’s legacy of assimilation of indigenous peoples. For leaders in positions of power and influence, I am happy to share an in depth look at the community of Kivalina, widely reported on, but greatly misunderstood. Indeed there has always been a great mystery to the Arctic, however what is not a mystery is that as this great landscape changes, the communities indigenous to it must be included in conversations about its future.
Gina Abatemarco is a New York-based director and producer who creates cinematic stories around food, culture and the environment. When not filming, she is active in New York’s sustainable food movement and researches original food cultures. She has cooked at the American Academy in Rome for Alice Waters’ “The Rome Sustainable Food Project” and has collaborated with Slow Food. She is a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts Film & TV Program, where she co-founded the Fusion Film Festival in 2001, the first festival to celebrate female filmmakers at NYU.
Zoë White, Director of Photography, divides her time between New York and Sydney, collaborating with a diverse roster of directors and production creatives whom share her passion for innovative and effective storytelling. She studies at North Carolina School of the Arts and the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and trained alongside mentors including Vilmos Zsigmond ASC, Newton Thomas Sigel ASC, Laszlo Kovacs ASC and James Cressanthis ASC. She has received a Golden Tripod and numerous awards from the Australian Cinematography Society, represented the United States at the Budapest Kodak Cinematography Masterclass, and won the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Cinematography Internship. Zoë shoots all kinds of projects, long and short form — she just completed her third narrative feature, has shot music videos for Sigur Ros, The National, Phantogram, and Jessica Mauboy, and worked with clients including Sony, McDonald’s, and the Barack Obama Foundation.
Kivalina will have its national broadcast premiere Tuesday, November 1 at 8/7c (check local listings) as part of WORLD Channel’s AMERICA REFRAMED series. The film will also stream free online for 60 days following the broadcast.