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‘Brooklyn/Alaska,’ an IndieWire Project of the Month Filmed When the Sun Never Set

After following a dozen teens through the outer edges of the country's largest national park, the film's story (and theirs) is just starting.

Brooklyn/Alaska

Fletcher Wolfe

Making a documentary is difficult enough. Making one in the neverending days of summer in Alaska is a monumental challenge.

Luckily, Erica Sterne, director and producer of “Brooklyn/Alaska,” didn’t have to face it alone. She and the film’s crew were also following a dozen high-school participants in the Brooklyn To Alaska Project, all traveling to the remote reaches of America’s largest state.

The process of journeying from the nation’s most populous city to the distant mountain wilderness makes for an illustrative story of young adulthood. But Sterne explains that the story doesn’t end once Alaska is successfully navigated. The cross-section of young men that make up this pool of subjects have plenty to share about what it means to come of age in America, whether it’s near the Arctic or in the heart of Flatbush.

After taking the Project of the Week prize back in December, readers selected “Brooklyn/Alaska” as the final Project of the Month for 2016. Filming isn’t wrapped yet, but after the last round of gathering footage, the team hopes to have a finished film ready for later in the year.

We spoke to Sterne via email about navigating an expansive national park, the grant application grind and the film’s bigger message about our economic relationship to nature.

What’s next for the project?

Documentaries are funny because you are perpetually in pre-production, fundraising, production and editorial all at once. Luckily, the bulk of our filming – the hard stuff out in Alaska – is behind us. Currently, we are prepping for our final shoot back in Brooklyn. The young men we filmed adventuring through Alaska go to different high schools across Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, East Flatbush and Park Slope, etc. This final shoot will be the first time they have seen one another in 8 months! I’m eager to see how they interact with one another and to also see how they have changed since the intense challenges of the trail. One of our subjects is a Yemeni refugee and a high school senior waiting to hear back from colleges. It has been interesting and at times heartbreaking watching this past year of racial, religious and ethnic bias through the eyes of these optimistic teenage boys. I’m hoping with this final shoot to do these young men justice by really capturing what it’s like growing up in inner-city America at this historical moment.

After this shoot, we will be fully in editorial and hope to finish the film this summer to play the festival circuit next year. I am still hustling to raise the finishing funds to get us through post. Fortunately, people seem to connect to the short piece we put together to prove our concept to fundraisers. (If you’d like to support this project, please consider donating to our fiscal sponsor The Redford Center in support of “Brooklyn/Alaska” here.)

What are the biggest challenges for the project?

“Brooklyn/Alaska” chronicles a trek through America’s largest and least visited national park, Wrangell– St Elias (13 million acres). Filming in a remote and rugged corner of Alaska presented plenty of challenges. We needed to keep the crew small and our gear list even smaller since we were often carrying all of our gear as we followed our subjects up glaciers, up mountains and down rivers. Cinematographer Fletcher Wolfe decided to shoot on the Canon C300 and Canon C100 Mark II, not only because these are beautiful cameras, but because their batteries and storage are both affordable and go a long way. This was vital, considering we didn’t have access to electricity for most of the trip and needed enough batteries and cards to shoot for a full 16 days without recharging or dumping footage. Both cameras are also surprisingly rugged and could handle the dust, splashes and surprises of filming in the wilderness.

Another challenge unique to filming in Alaska in July is that the sun never fully sets. The crew was already waking up earlier than the young men we were filming and staying up later, but the eternal sunshine really messes with your internal clock, so our small crew was pretty sleep deprived for the entirety of an already physically and emotionally challenging shoot. The silver lining was that instead of setting, the sun rotates just below the horizon. This means we were exhausted but blessed with about six hours of brilliant magic hour lighting each day that would make even Terrence Malick jealous.

Also, driving in a cramped passenger van with twelve teenagers who hadn’t showered in a week was an especially unique challenge.

What are your goals?

The goal with “Brooklyn/Alaska” is to get people talking about the environmental inequality that prevents inner city kids from accessing nature. In New York, affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope have about three times more green space than lower income neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant or Brownsville. There is also a diversity “adventure gap” all around the country, with white Americans accounting for 78% of the visitors to our National Parks. These are places that belong to – and should be accessible – to every American regardless of where they live, income or race. We focus on the stories of three young men of color from underserved Brooklyn neighborhoods and track the direct positive effects nature and travel have on all aspects of their lives. Basically, we see them getting their minds blown on a wild adventure as they learn about themselves along the way. The experience of leaving Brooklyn for the first time to be immersed in a place that is so very different, like Alaska, expanded their world both literally and philosophically. There were a lot of incredible firsts on this trip: first plane ride, first trip away from home, first hike, first time climbing a mountain, first introduction to someone who lives off the land, first time chopping wood, first jump into glacial waters, first time hearing “silence.” Once the film is complete, we plan on holding community screenings around the country to reach other city kids and encourage the formation of more programs that connect low income youth with nature – like The Brooklyn To Alaska Project – the group we followed for this documentary.

What do you wish someone had told you before you started?

Independent documentary filmmaking requires a lot more writing than I had anticipated, especially for grant submissions and fundraising materials. If you are thinking of directing or producing an independent documentary, the reality is that you will likely be spending more time writing fundraising and promotional documents than actually doing the creative cinematic work. Which is fine: when you do get to the creative work, you have complete control. Grants and film funds are critical sources of financing for social issue documentaries like “Brooklyn/Alaska.” After five drafts, I was finally happy with my basic grant proposal, but the exercise was akin to writing a senior thesis – something I hadn’t done in eight years. Overall, the writing process has been helpful. It has forced me to analyze and dissect the “story” and helped me focus on the purpose and social impact goals of the project. Now, I just need to secure the rest of the funds to share these special stories!

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