Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Natural History on the Big Screen: Newtok

Natural History on the Big Screen: Newtok
March 23, 2022

Aron Crowell:
Hi everyone. And welcome to the 30th annual Environmental Film Festival in the nation's capital, and tonight's event around the film, Newtok. I'm Aron Crowell, an Arctic anthropologist and Alaska director of the Smithsonian's Arctic Study Center, and I'll be the moderator tonight. The program is being offered in collaboration with the National Museum of Natural History and the DC Environmental Film Festival. And it's our pleasure to welcome you tonight.

We'll be hosting one more event this week alongside the festival. And so be sure to check our website for more information. The museum has been a proud partner of the film festival for the past 30 years. And we'd like to thank them for being such a great partner and not only during the festival, but throughout the year.

So tonight's discussion is in conjunction with the film Newtok. Newtok, Alaska where years of rising temperatures have eroded the permafrost underlying the village, melted the frost and led the river, nearby river to cut closer to the village and start washing it away. With their homes and way of life hanging in the balance, the town's residents weigh the prospect of relocating the community or abandoning their traditional lands forever.

Now, if you haven't had a chance to see this film yet you can watch after the discussion until the film festival ends on March 27th. I've had the pleasure of being one of the advisors, advising scientists during the making of the film. And so this story and the community really connects with the work we do at the Smithsonian Arctic Study Center. We have offices in Anchorage and in Washington DC. Our focus is on cultural studies and programs carried out in close cooperation with native peoples of the north.

That includes different kinds of creative collaborations, educational partnerships, and knowledge sharing with indigenous scholars and communities. With studies ranging from archeology and oral tradition to creating exhibits and films and holding residencies and workshops in traditional arts. We create digital resources for classroom education. And in Anchorage, the exhibition, Living our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage, the First Peoples of Alaska, is a center for collaborative study and teaching with reference to over 600 master works of indigenous art and design that are on long-term loan and accessible for study. They're all from the Smithsonian and have returned home to Alaska.

So I'm really looking forward to tonight's discussion. Please submit your questions as we go along and note who to direct them to. That's during the conversation in the Eventive chat box, so we can get through as many as possible.

So let me dive into our conversation then, and introduce our panelists. So first we're joined by the filmmakers, Andrew Burton is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, documentary photographer and filmmaker with a focus in news, conflict and environment issues. His work has been published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, New Yorker, Time, and The Guardian among others. Burton has worked as a staff photo journalist for Getty Images, as well as a freelance photographer covering breaking news and long-term stories locally, nationally, and internationally.

Michael Kirby Smith is an Emmy Award winning filmmaker and photographer. His work has been published by the New York Times, National Geographic, Time, Reader, Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Whitney Museum of American Art. He's also worked as a director and director of photography for the New Yorker, PBS Frontline, National Geographic Explorer, Rolling Stone, Netflix, Vice and Human Rights Watch.

Marie Meade is joining us from Anchorage. Marie is a Yup'ik anthropologist and language professor at University of Alaska, Anchorage. Her family is originally from Kailavik, which is where the people of Newtok were located prior to the government forest relocation to Newtok. During the making of the film, she helped conduct interviews with villagers in Yupik. She's considered a culture bearer throughout the Yupik community of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region.

Della Carl is joining us from Mertarvik. She grew up and lived in Newtok until she left home to pursue a university education. She studied in Fairbanks and spent portions of her adult life in other Alaskan cities and towns before returning to the village. The encroaching river forced Della and her three children to move in with her parents and extended family. So with scarce housing and economic opportunities in Newtok, Della must choose between providing economic security for her children and offering emotional support as they crash headlong into the move across the river. So if you've seen the film, you see that's a very compelling story as it's told there.

So I'll start some questions here. Maybe first to Andrew and Michael, the filmmakers. For everyone on whose with us tonight, who may not have had a chance to see the film, could you just give us a brief overview?

Andrew Burton:
Sure. Thanks so much for having us and we're excited to be here. Aron, I don't know if I could summarize the film better than you just did, but the people of Newtok, and it's funny to talk about this with Della right here, because in some ways Della would be the better person to speak about this. But the people of Newtok have been trying to move for decades because of the impacts of climate change. The village of Newtok is established on the southernmost boundary of the permafrost in Southwestern Alaska. And so as the earth heats up, the permafrost is melting. And Newtok is one of the first communities to really feel the impacts of that.

The village council first hired engineers to study the issue of melting permafrost and river erosion in 1983, so nearly 40 years ago. And they voted to relocate their entire village in 1996. So they voted to move more than 20 years ago. We set out to tell a small portion of Newtok's story with the help of Marie and Della. And so we filmed as the village attempted to relocate from the years of 2015 through 2020.

We follow a few different main characters in the village and we follow their story as they're dealing with more than 40 federal and state agencies, trying to fundraise, trying to garner attention for their community, trying to build homes. And without giving too much away, well, I'm not sure if we should talk about how the film ends, but in short, some people are able to move and some aren't. And it's a story that is still going on and we feel is more prescient than ever given the fact that climate change is only becoming a bigger issue globally.

Aron Crowell:
Well Della, let me follow with you then. The film takes an intimate look into your life and the struggles of your community in the face of climate change and the difficulties. So what was it like for you to have your story captured in the film? And what is happening today after the move?

Della Carl:
Hello. One, I didn't want to be a part of the documentary because it was just too much for me at the time. They began filming when I was in the process of helping build Mertarvik. We've had to adjust kind of. Well, a big adjustment from moving. But it was necessary. It was forced, but it's still ... What was your question?

Aron Crowell:
Well, I mean, you really started into it already. But it was just the experience of having your story captured. And the filmmakers spent a lot of time in your home and we learned about your family and meet everyone. And just the experience of going through that, at the same time you were dealing with all of the real life difficulties of the situation.

Della Carl:
I feel like because it was forced, it was necessary to just keep going at it. I didn't have a choice but to keep adjusting every day.

Aron Crowell:
Yeah. Well ... No, go ahead.

Della Carl:
But the process is still ongoing, that there was another family that moved a few months ago.

Aron Crowell:
Well, yes, you have an open-ended feeling about the film. And we know it's still going on. So it's very interesting then, the filming started in 2016, so it's already a long story. Well, let me ...

Andrew Burton:
I don't mean to cut in, and Della, I don't mean this speak for you. But I think some of the frustration that Della's trying to articulate is ... And we were just in Newtok and Mertarvik last week. We were just spending time with Della. And one of the things we noticed, it's the first time we've been able to go in two years because of the pandemic.

Our film finishes right as about a third of the community moves. And so now you have a divided community. And you have a third of the community living in a new village with beautiful new homes in a safe location. And you have two thirds of the community still in Newtok, still trying to move. Unclear how that's going to happen with fundraising not secured.

And Della, you can tell me if I'm wrong, but to us, it felt very much like a community in a very painful, traumatic process of people trying to move, people desiring to move, wanting to, and not being able to figure that out. So Della now is working as a school teacher in the new village. Her family is safe. But Della has many, many extended family members still in Newtok and their safety and security are not yet. It's not clear what's going to happen.

Speaker 4:
[inaudible 00:13:00].

Aron Crowell:
Marie, I thought I'd ask you as well. You were an important advisor and participant in this film. And why was it important to you to share this story now? And what do you think audiences will take away from watching the film?

Andrew Burton:
Marie, you just have to go off mute.

Marie Meade:
Okay. Quyanaqvaa Aron for the introduction. And it's good to see all of you. And why not tell the story? I mean, the question is why tell the story now? But I would say, why not tell the story? It's the story of all of us. And I am so grateful and so proud of these two individuals. We need more of individuals, people like Andrew and Michael to bring out this story, to go out and gather and tell the story of many people. This affects all of us, the whole world is affected by all this climate change and effects of climate change.

So that's what I was thinking about saying that we need. I'm so happy and so proud of Andrew and Michael for the dedication and the commitment to go, and the love that they developed with the people and the people of Newtok and the region, and what is happening there. And it's just not Newtok where this is happening in our area, in the region. My village is also sinking. So, hopefully that people will leave becoming aware that this is not just one people, just a story of Newtok. It's a story of all of us, everyone of us.

So quyanaqvaa for Andrew and Michael for working so hard for six years and putting their time into it, their money. And leaving the comfort zone of their homes and spending time with these people to capture the story of what is happening.

Aron Crowell:
Well, thank you, Marie. And I was wanting to ask you, Andrew and Michael, about the process of working with the community. You did it, did so over a number of years. I think you most likely spent a lot of time talking with members on the council and the community as a whole. Can you just talk about the process of making a project, building trust, bringing people into it over that time?

Michael Kirby Smith:
Yeah, definitely. Quyana Marie, thank you for those kind words. I mean, I think that it was a very ... First off we were able to begin the project with permission from the village council, the Newtok village council. So we could not have done it without the support of the council. And I think when we first went to the community, like all documentary work, it takes a long time to build relationships, to build trust with the community.

And you're really going into a project like this with a vague idea of what the story is that you're trying to tell, you don't know. You're going there to report. You're going there to learn. You're going there to talk to people and ask them about what they're experiencing. We wanted to make a film that was about climate change, but a film that was happening now. We wanted to make an observational film showing the effects of, the direct effects that climate change was having on people right now at this moment. Many of the films that address climate change have been more predictive in nature.

And it was very important for Andrew and I to ... We really wanted to make a film that was happening now. And this was happening in the United States to a native community that has had very little impact in terms of climate change in that sense. And so in time, I think, with repeated trips, you just build more and more relationships with the community. Where we ultimately landed a huge part of that was because of how the community opened up to us after spending so much time getting to know them, spending time in the school, bringing Marie into the community who had family connections and was able to have a certain just respect from the elders in the interviewing process.

And then stylistically, we really wanted the film to open with images from people of Newtok, words from people of Newtok. And end in that way, in the spirit of oral storytelling traditions, which is how cultural memory in Yupik society is passed on.

Do you have anything to add, Andrew?

Andrew Burton:
I would just add that the real blessing of this story, it was a slow-moving story. It's the story of permafrost melting and river erosion and then government response to climate change. And all of those are slow processes. And that meant that we spent a lot of time in the village with cameras down, just getting to know people, hanging out. We spent over 300 days in the village throughout the film-making process. And that was just a blessing for us to get to know the community in that way. I think we ultimately, Michael already touched on this, but we wanted the film to feel like life in Newtok, what it feels like to be there. So that was what we were aiming for.

Aron Crowell:
Well, just a follow-up on that, just in terms of style of how the film is constructed. I see an emphasis on helping the community tell its own story. You were not adding a lot of external commentary, journalistic or scientific commentary about the process.

Michael Kirby Smith:
Yeah. I think that was one of the things that we definitely were trying to figure out how much context to provide for the film.

Andrew Burton:
Our backgrounds are in journalism and we are journalists, and we felt an enormous responsibility to do all our homework. So we did the dozens and dozens of interviews with geologists and climate change experts and federal officials and state officials. And that was through the reporting process of trying to understand all the different players and the science behind what's going on, and to have as much context as possible that we could use if we wanted to in the film.

Andrew Burton:
But ultimately we wanted this film ... So even though we had all that footage and we had done that homework, we wanted this film to feel emotional and personal and on the ground. We didn't want to continually cut away to talking heads, what we call in documentary, talking heads, interviews, where people are taking you out of the village, they're zooming you out to the 30,000 foot view. We wanted to keep this film as much as possible in Newtok, in real time with the people whose lives are being directly affected.

Michael Kirby Smith:
Yeah. And just in terms of whittling that, the interviews down and how we figured, constructed it, it ultimately ended up being ... The only interviews that are used throughout the film are from people from the community or directly connected to what's actually happening to the community. And I think that, that was a very conscious, stylistic and a decision that was important for us, the further we got in telling the story.

Aron Crowell:
Oh, thanks. Yeah. It leads me to Della to a question I wanted to ask of you. For me, a really strong theme that comes through in the film and the way it was edited is you that people love their community. They love the land where they live. And I wondered if you could just share some of your feelings about Newtok as your home, and what makes it a special place?

Della Carl:
Newtok as my home, I still consider Newtok as my place. It's where the majority of the people that I love, they're still over there. And Newtok itself is just ... Because I grew up over there, it's a really important part of who I am, where I come from. And that's where my heart is. To be separated from where I grew up and knowing that it's slowly being eroded away is painful. But to be here is also beautiful. So it's like a tug for me. But Newtok will always be my home and the people that I love and adore are still over there. I just want to pull them in and just move them here, but I can't. All of this has been a traumatic experience, but it's also really beautiful in a way.

Aron Crowell:
Well Della, we have some audience questions too, and it follows from that. There's the change to the village and the erosion, but also possibly to the environment around where you are. And one of the members in the audience asked, "Are you able to hunt, fish and conduct other food gathering as effectively from the new location? And do the two groups join together for these activities? Or is that divided with the move?"

Della Carl:
Actually, we're still able to. Because we're situated in the same area, we're still able to hunt whatever we used to hunt while we were in Newtok. We still pick berries. We go fishing still. Had it not been for the pandemic we would still be going out hunting and gathering together. We haven't been able to do that due to the pandemic. But it's slowly as, with the vaccines and quarantine and everything we have been able to get together.

And also the students, there's a group here in Newtok also that meet together. They either travel here one weekend and then travel to Newtok the next weekend for the Eskimo dance. So we're still able to hold on to everything that we used to do together.

Aron Crowell:
Well, thank you. There's another very interesting question here from the audience for you Della, and Marie. Do oral tradition and the knowledge of elders help people decide what to do now, to be able to be resilient and adapt to change?

Della Carl:
I think keeping the elders informed of everything has been able to help when we were moving here. They were able to guide us, everyone. The council members, they were able to guide them through the process and how to talk to everyone, maybe. Because that's what I remember. They used to gather at the community hall and they would talk to each other about how to try and get Newtok moving.

Aron Crowell:
Marie, could you come on that? Because you had a chance to talk to a lot of people in the community, including elders, and to do the interviews in Yupik. Just to talk a little bit about that, how that knowledge ...? Yeah.

Marie Meade:
Yeah. Traditionally our elders and elders in Newtok during the process, during all of this process, I know for certain that the leaders, the tribal councils and community members were relying on the information and the help and the direction of the elders, which has always been the practice of our people. The elders are knowledge keepers and knowledge bearers. They've experienced many changes, they've adapted and changed and moved, and done all of that. They are teachers, they are the main teachers, the leaders.

They show us the way. So they continue to do that. We respect our elders. We look up to our elders, we keep them home. We try to keep them home to try to embrace them and ask them questions. They're treasure chests of traditional knowledge and what happened. Their life stories are treasures, their stories and their songs and everything. And they do it, and they give it with a fee, this love and a love of their people to continue on. To survive, to keep going through so many challenges and so much layers and layers of challenges that we have faced.

We've been able to get to this a day, still holding onto the knowledge that have been provided for us. I'm so thankful Della, that you are part of this process right now with this work. You will carry, you are the future and you will be there to tell this story when I'm gone. And I'm getting up there and you are going to help tell this story way into the future. And I hope you continue to work and really do, you're doing it. And continue on, and you will be the treasurer. You are a treasure right now in my thinking. [Foreign language 00:31:08] Della, for being here. [Foreign language 00:31:14].

Aron Crowell:
Thank you, Marie. Just a quick question on, it struck me when you're talking about those stories, that history of moving villages, people have always had to relocate. And could you talk a little bit about what that was like in the past? Why did people move in the past? It must have really been very different when everything could be rebuilt in a new location from local materials.

Marie Meade:
Yeah. I believe and do really believe that from the stories that the elders have provided, that this moving, not moving and relocating following the seasons. It's not leaving. Moving is part of life of the Yupik people from the ancient times, from way back following the seasons. Nomads is what you call people from ... Our people were nomads, they followed the seasons. But there are stories about how people moved and left their places because it was necessary because of the changes or erosions. And so that's always been the case with the reason why there were relocations.

So it's not something new for our people. It was not easier or better for the environment back in the days to use local materials that's biodegradable and it can be recycled. And there was none, today we have, like with the village of Newtok, there's buildings, there's fossil fuel, tanks and huge buildings that are probably will not be able to move, be moved. So, what do you do with that? It's not healthy to leave it, but back in those days, they would just pick up and rebuild and everything would go back to the natural state of wood and sod and grass that was used to build homes and for everything. So it went back to the natural. You hurt the land or the waters.

Aron Crowell:
Well, it became an archeological site as well. It just melted into the ground. And it's there as part of history, a material part of history that you're talking about, the oral continuity of that. But that's still there too. Well, I really appreciate that discussion, that answer.

I'm just checking here with another audience question, which is, our audience members are expressing how moved they were watching the film. And this is for you Della. "I'm hearing about your story," Kathleen and Gilbert asked, "How have the children adjusted since the move?"

Della Carl:
My children, they're great. They're happy. They're healthy, a very important part. They've been able to adjust fairly good because we're still together, my family. The only thing that's changed for them is the environment and the things that they're able to do day-to-day that they were able to do in Newtok. But they've adjusted pretty good. And they're happy.

Aron Crowell:
That's good. Yeah, that's wonderful.

Well, we had some questions that go back to the process of making the film. Let's see, and it's about fundraising. "What does fundraising for a project ..." Oh no, I'm sorry. This is about the relocation itself. "What does the fundraising for a project like the relocation look like?" Obviously it's really considered in the film. The question says, "Is it entirely lobbying government agencies or are additional grants, private donors, and other sources sought?"

Michael Kirby Smith:
Thanks, Aron. I think it's a combination of both of those things of putting political pressure in D.C. And then also for a long time, Newtok was a lot of the projects that they were doing in terms of building the new village were funded by very specific grants. But in addition to that, and especially now, when there isn't a clear path of funding coming in, there is no, there's nothing that we've seen that indicates how the two-thirds of the community is going to be relocated moving forward.

With that said, in the film we've partnered with Patagonia. They came into the film and helped finish the film for us. And I think that there's goals to do two things with that. And one of them is put political pressure to try to get support for action, that turns into dollars for the community. And then we're finalizing now a CTA for people to continue to support the community.

But in addition to that, Newtok will be continuing to do what it has always done, which is fight for grant funding in a whole different variety of ways. And that's just a hodgepodge of all sorts of different government and federal and state funding programs that are very specific to very specific things. Because when you really think about the financial side of a relocation like this, there is no path for this. There's no mechanism for federal funding to easily get to the village, which has been an obstacle. And specifically because of how FEMA defines a natural disaster. It has very strict legal terms in terms of what they can actually give money to.

So yeah, I would say it's those two things, political pressure, and then grant writing. Or three, and then direct to the community.

Aron Crowell:
It seems that Newtok is going through something that coastal areas across the whole country will be going through, and places in flood plains. This is going to get to be a worse and worse program. And in a way, Newtok is pioneering, well, what can a community do?

Andrew Burton:
That's exactly right. You can go cross-eyed trying to track all the different agencies and their different grant programs and their different initiatives and what the federal budget is doing? And what's a hot topic in Congress right now? Ultimately, at least from our experience witnessing what the village council and the community in Newtok had to go through, it's just incredibly infuriating how difficult it is and how hodgepodge it is to secure funding.

And one of the biggest issues is that there is no central government agency tasked with climate adaptation and mitigation. And that is, I think what we really need is a federal entity that specifically works on projects like this. At one point this was probably like 2016, 2017, the village council was starting to pursue help from international, from other nations because they could not get the U.S. government to pay attention enough.

So, I think we've heard a lot of lip service more recently in the last few years about taking climate change more seriously. But I think the proof is in the pudding that Newtok still has not finished their relocation. And there are dozens of more villages right behind them.

Michael Kirby Smith:
I think also just to add one note on that, in addition to that. Newtok is an example that there is not going to be a clean process for communities that have to relocate. It's going to be through resilience and fighting for funding. There's going to be a lot of coastal communities that are fighting for the same dollars. And so we have to ask ourselves, how do we determine who we are going to give money to and who does not get money? And that's a very tricky question. It's regionally, it's political, it's all these sorts of things. But that's also why the issue of money is so complex. And why Newtok is like you said, pioneering that in terms of being one of the first communities that's further along in the relocation process.

Aron Crowell:
I was struck by the fact in the film also, and this would really be for anybody to comment on. That the political process was between the leaders of this small community, the village council. And then at one point, they go directly to Washington. There's nothing in-between, it's people are taking responsibility in this communal way. You showed several community meetings where everyone is trying to decide what to do. And then they're taking that message to Washington and meeting with people in Congress. That struck me as an extraordinary aspect of the story. There was no structure for doing that. You just have to do it, and in this case. So I thought that was an interesting aspect of the film.

Andrew Burton:
Absolutely. And I mean, the inherent injustice that one village council, seven people are supposed to understand the mechanisms in which the federal government works and where they should be finding grant funding is outrageous. But to the villages' unending credit, that's exactly what the village did.

Aron Crowell:
This is one of the uses of the film in a way that it's looking to the future. Can the film be an aspect of these really important conversations and learning opportunities? I mean, I think maybe Newtok has a lot to teach us all and maybe the film can really have a purpose in that way.

Andrew Burton:
Yeah. That is certainly our desire. As journalists, you're always looking for an important story that's not getting as much attention as it deserves. And I think Newtok is a perfect example of that.

Michael Kirby Smith:
I think it's also an example of a community that has had very little impact on the earth. And the community was forced to relocate to where Newtok now is, and tied to an infrastructure that traditionally Yupik people were not tied to. And so there is a different set of ethical and moral questions that arise from that. And I think that when you look at climate change and you consider that it really is about money at the end of the day, it's about the people who have and have not. And how do governments determine which communities are going to get money? And how do they determine why?

This is a community that deserves to get support from the federal government. This is a community for a lot of reason. And in addition to that, there's so much to learn in terms of how we treat the earth in the traditions of Yupik people and other native communities. I think that there's a growing interest to look at native communities and listen to what they might offer in terms of awareness and working or living in the ecosystems that they live in.

Aron Crowell:
Thank you. Marie, we're getting close to the end of our time and wondered if you had some closing comments or reflections you'd like to share?

Marie Meade:
Quyanaqvaa, thank you very much for all the wonderful words that we're sharing at this moment and today. I don't know who the audience is, quyana for being there, listening and receiving, and hopefully learning. And to take this home and to share with others. And the story of Newtok is going to travel around in this country and hopefully abroad in the future. So I just want to thank all of you here, and out there that are listening.

This is an ongoing story. And that I know Andrew and Michael have footages and so much that they've ... This is just a little part, a little bit, that is 90 minutes of what they gathered and they filmed. And got so close to the people and down to earth and telling, and hearing and take filming and capturing the story. So, quyanaqvaa and maybe someone else can [crosstalk 00:47:56] maybe.

Aron Crowell:
Well, quyanaqvaa, Marie. And Della, do you have some closing thoughts?

Della Carl:
No, but thank you for having me today.

Aron Crowell:
Good. You were a big part of it, so really appreciate it.

Okay. Well, we need to wrap things up and I want you to please join me in thanking tonight's speakers, Andrew, Michael, Marie, and Della. And the DC Environmental Film Festival, and the production team who've been making things go so smoothly behind the scenes. And I'd like to give special thanks to those who made today's program possible. That includes donors and volunteers and viewers like you, and all of our partners who help us reach, educate, and empower millions of people around the world today and every day. So, quyana.

We've got one more event with the DC Environmental Film festival. We'll put a link in the chat for you. You'll also see a link to a survey that's in the chat, and we hope you'll take a moment to respond to that. We're really interested in your input. So thanks again to all our participants. It was great seeing all of you again, and to you, the audience. So see you soon. Thank you.

Archived Webinar

This Zoom webinar discussion of the film "Newtok" aired March 23, 2022. Watch a recording in the player above.

Description

The National Museum of Natural History and the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital collaborated to offer this program, which featured an online screening of the film "Newtok" and the Q&A discussion in the video above. Participating in the discussion were the filmmakers Andrew Burton and Michael Kirby Smith, the film’s subject Della Carl, and the film’s executive producer Marie Meade.

Moderator: Alaska director of Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center and one of the film’s scientific advisors Aron L. Crowell

This program was part of the 2022 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.

About the Film

In the town of Newtok, Alaska, years of rising temperatures have eroded the frozen foundation of the area and begun sinking the tiny Yup’ik village. With their homes and way of life hanging in the balance, the town’s residents weigh the prospect of relocating the community or abandoning their traditional lands forever. "Newtok" is a lyrical, verité portrait of a people looking for justice in the face of climate disaster.

Resource Type
Videos and Webcasts
Topics
Social Studies