In Alaskaland, the African experience is tackled from a refreshing, new perspective.
Filmed over two weeks in the town of Fairview, Alaska, the movie tells the story of Chukwuma (Alex Ubokudom), a young Nigerian-American, son of a college professor and an engineer, who finds himself at a crossroads when the film begins. Torn between his Nigerian heritage and a desire to fit in with his American friends, Chukwuma ultimately decides to choose his friends, a decision that inadvertently leads to the death of his parents in a fatal car crash.
Two years after the accident, Chukwuma’s once promising life is drastically changed. He is a friendless, unemployed college dropout with a dodgy personal record, living a solitary life in a shabby one-bedroom apartment. Angry and unable to come to terms with his grief or what he wants to do next, things seems at a standstill. Suddenly, he’s forced to engage once again with his past and the guilt of his parents’ death, when he is reunited with his sixteen-year-old sister Chi Chi (Chioma Dunkley), who has been living in Nigeria with relatives since the crash.
Gradually, Chuck begins to connect with his Nigerian identity through his little sister, who teaches him to speak Igbo and master the art of perfect jollof rice. After a screening of the film at the recent New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center, lead actor Ubokudom revealed that he and his onscreen sibling immediately connected during the shoot, and still remain close. Their chemistry is indeed at the heart of this film, the driving force that ultimately saves the first-time feature from some of its problems.
Several technical gaffs and sound issues briefly disrupt the overall flow of the film, but do not detract from the emotional core of the story. Still, there are instances when the narrative dips into the realm of melodrama, the most overdone moment being a party scene where Chuck gets into a fight with one of his former friends, the cliché villain of the film, who earlier attempts to seduce the teenaged Chi Chi.
But on the whole, Alaskaland is an endearing first effort, and what it may lack in overall skill it more than makes up for with a great deal of heart. Few films ever grapple about what it means to be a first-generation African in America, and fewer still set that identity against the claustrophobic backdrop of a rural Alaskan town.
Still, what makes the essence of the story appealing is the fact that anyone between cultures, African or not, can find something to relate to.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.