Barrow student confronts climate change in independent film
"How can we lose 10,000 years of guardianship of our lands in just 50 years?"
That's the question at the heart of an independent short film by Barrow High School senior Eben Hopson, 17. The film is called "Climate Change," and it tells a part of the story locals know well.
"The main background of my project is climate change, because it's what's happening now, and it's really affecting the coastal communities of Alaska," said Hopson. "I wanted to let people know that the younger generations are paying attention to what's going on around them and that they are concerned about the future of themselves and the Arctic, and that we want to take a step for change for our people."
It's a documentary short that starts on the Utqiaġvik coastline with the sound of drumming and singing in the background. It pans over the Arctic ocean and questions the future of this place and its inhabitants due to the shifting environment, tying in traditional knowledge, science, culture and community.
"I was born and raised here and I married and left and was gone almost 30 years and then I came back," said local resident Evelyn Williams, who was interviewed for the film. "I moved here in 2012 and it was really different. In 2012, the ice didn't come in and it started freezing from the beach out, instead of the iceberg there and then freezing around it. It was eerie. I felt kind of afraid but the people around me weren't rattled or anything. They didn't talk about it."
Hopson shot and produced the film as part of a digital videography course hosted by teacher Aron Ranen and sponsored by the Arctic Slope Regional Corp.
He explained that talking to Elders was a fundamental part of this project.
"Always listen to the older people around you. It doesn't matter if they're related to you or not. They know what they're saying and we can use what they say to us for the betterment for the communities sake and safety," said Hopson. "The many Elders who have lived here all of their life have definitely noticed change from when they were my age until now, and we should pay attention to the changes that have affected the community."
Throughout his 17 years, he's seen changes happen throughout his community, too. One of the largest storms he witnessed was the recent one that battered the North Slope coastline, flooding roads and destroying protective infrastructure. Hopson said he hopes to make a short film about that storm and its impacts next.
"The one major thing that I hope people learn from this film is that things are changing whether they want it to or not, and that in a couple of decades — say 50 years — that from this point until then, we need to make sure that every community is safe from all of the fall storms that they go through, and that the higher people in the community are responsible not only for their future, but for their community's future too," he said.
Some of his interviewees, like Utqiaġvik Mayor Fannie Suvlu, confronted the difficult future her community may face as a result.
"The permafrost thawing makes me question how stable the underground is with the unnatural underground Utilidor system," Suvlu said. "If we have to relocate, we're going to have to start from scratch, I believe, because if we relocate, I'm sure the federal government will not want us to relocate only 10 to 15 miles. With that being said, we'll have to start from ground zero again and work our way back to where we're at."
Hopson also included researchers in the project to hash out why these changes are taking place. He spoke with Dr. Aram Kalhori of San Diego State University, who works with the Global Change Research Group.
"The Arctic tundra is a sink of carbon ... It absorbed the carbon. Now, we just found out that recently it switches to the source of carbon," she explained, adding that the carbon emissions have increased over the 18 years of measurements taken for the study.
While the film doesn't touch on what can be done in the future, it does include words of wisdom from its interviewees that could help guide the conversation.
"I think our ancestors had the right mindset, to be nomadic," Suvlu said.
As for Williams: "I feel that people are the guardians of Mother Earth," she said.
This is one of the unique aspects of film — it can show a person speaking on a subject they care about. You can see and hear and feel their passion, their worry and their hope.
Hopson said he likes working with film because he thinks it helps subjects "become more noticed." It pushes important topics into the spotlight for people to consider.
That's why it's something he hopes to continue practicing once he finishes this stage of education.
"One of the things I hope to pursue after high school is getting a degree in filmmaking or journalism, and coming back to my hometown and the Arctic and getting more people into these fields of work, because you really don't see that many Alaska Native (or) Native American filmmakers or journalists out there and that would be an awesome thing to do, because I know that there are kids just like me who are interested in this type of (work)," Hopson said.
For now, he'll concentrate on his studies and his hobbies and hopefully have time to bring them together in future projects like this one.
You can watch Hopson's film online at: https://vimeo.com/234767474.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.