Kivalina Crumbling Away

A Conversation with Filmmaker Gina Abatemarco

Kivalina, a remote Inupiat community in northwestern Alaska, is dangerously vulnerable to coastal erosion from severe Arctic storms. Sea ice used to absorb most of the storm waves, but ice is now a rarer sight on the warming ocean. Experts predict Kivalina will be uninhabitable within the next decade or so, the land finally crumbling beneath it. The locals are constantly pursuing the legal, economic and political means to relocate the village, which was established by the Federal Government on a strip of land used by the local people’s ancestors as a seasonal hunting camp, never meant for permanent settlement. Their future is also threatened by economic ventures exploiting the Arctic environment. Kivalina, by New York-based director Gina Abatemarco, premiered at this year’s Berlinale, where CFL sat down with her to talk about her experiences with the people of Kivalina since 2008.  

Kivalina 2 - Gina 

I went to Kivalina with the intent of making a climate change film. I went back for multiple extended stays, hoping to document the town’s relocation. But in the end we stopped waiting for things to happen, and we decided instead to spend more time with the community. We wanted to film with one woman who is a political figure in the community. We didn’t really know what we would be shooting, but it ended up all being about food. So accidentally I absorbed a really nice look at the type of work that goes into living in that Arctic landscape and how people prepare food.

The food they have there is amazing. I’m really enamoured with the flavours, and their preservation techniques, and the way the food brings the community together and drives everything. It’s incredible. You wouldn’t know it but there is such biodiversity, for starters. It’s not just fish and mammals. They have these wild dandelion greens, wild potatoes, fennel, lots of berries, wild onions, and medicinal herbs. Then there are millions of ways to prepare the bird meat, and the fish, and the caribou. And there’s making the oil, and the fat. It’s just kind of extraordinary.

Kivalina, Alaska

I wasn’t expecting to be invited to go out hunting and foraging and gathering with the community, but it was a very profound experience for me. What I thought would just be filming these activities ended up really moving me. It sparked some kind of primordial feelings. It was the realisation of a human sensation, one that I think we all have access to when we’re in nature, and harvesting from nature, and working in community.

After getting back to New York I felt a very deep longing for this, for this connection between nature and community. It was missing from my life. So I threw myself completely into food. I had always loved food, but in some way, to the best of my ability in a western landscape, I wanted to bring some of the community focus to food, and I wanted to engage with the landscape that provides for us. So I started working for farmers, I volunteered at the Union Square Greenmarket, I learnt how to cook better, I went to Rome and cooked for Alice Waters’ Sustainable Food Project, I was even going to become a butcher.

What’s so unique about Kivalina is that a lot of their traditions are still so present, and they are so tied to the Arctic landscape. They’re extremely intelligent, spiritual, and they’ve made choices. They know how they’re seen from the outside; they know exactly what’s going on, and they’ve made beautiful choices to continue with their ways.

Kivalina 3

Of course industry is looking to move up to that part of the world. It’s really quite tragic, for me, having spent time in that Arctic landscape – a landscape which is very penetrating and primordial – to realise there are these interests looking to destroy it. The Chukchi Sea, the sea on which Kivalina subsists, is federal property, so Kivalina have no say in what is done there. If there was any arctic oil drilling disaster you’d basically wipe out an entire food culture. You can’t recover from that.

I met with people from Slow Food and talked about Kivalina. They immediately understood and wanted to get involved straight away. We formed an Arctic delegation to attend the Terra Madre conference in 2014. In the end only one person could come (due to funding and visa issues), but it was fantastic. I am still very much involved with getting this kind of delegation to the next Terra Madre in Torino this September. The woman who went, Bertha Adams, is working on getting one version of what’s called ‘Eskimo Ice Cream’ into the Ark of Taste. It’s dried and boiled caribou meat, which is flaked into whipped caribou fat along with wild blueberries. I cannot describe how delicious and satisfying their food is.

My next project is going to be on edible landscapes. Everywhere I go now I think I see as an edible landscape, or the lack of an edible landscape. Despite what you see in the film – a community threatened by climate change, a community with illness and poverty – I’m here to give testimony that this community and so much of its ancient culture are still intact, and it’s totally driven by food. All of their relationships are based on food. They have candy bars and Coca-Cola and instant noodles, of course, like the rest of us. But the food from their surrounding environment drives everything. And we can’t allow communities that still have that to be destroyed any more. It’s so rare. There is something about being in nature, and harvesting from nature, then sharing this in community. There is a kind of peace and sanity to it. It makes sense, you know. It feels good.

Kivalina 1


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