Skip to main content
Coronavirus (COVID-19): Latest updates.

In the Field

Interview with Sarah Betcher on her film Ice Edge – The Ikaaġvik Sikukun Story

28 February 2022
Photo by Jessie Lindsay.
Photo by Jessie Lindsay.

The film Ice Edge centers around the Ikaaġvik Sikukun research project in Kotzebue, Alaska that connects the community with scientists to understand sea ice change in Kotzebue Sound. Under guidance from an advisory council of Elders, the project uses state-of-the-art observing techniques, including unmanned aerial systems (commonly known as drones) to answer questions related to sea ice, ocean physics, and marine mammal biology. Filmmaker Sarah Betcher sat down for an interview with Andy Isaacson to discuss Ice Edge, what it means to be an ethnographic filmmaker, and what she hopes viewers will take away from the film.

🔊 You can listen to the interview by clicking on the audio player icon next to each interview question. 

 

Ikaagvik Sikukun Project Overview. Courtesy of Farthest North Films.

 

Andy Mahoney searches for swimming ringed seals while Sarah Betcher films the seals at the edge of the sea ice. Photo by Donna Hauser.

 

 

Hi, my name is Andy Isaacson. And I’m sitting here with documentary film producer Sarah Betcher, owner of Farthest North Films. We’re here to have a conversation about the recent launch of her film Ice Edge, the Ikaaġvik Sikukun Story. So, Sarah, let’s start off, maybe you could tell us an overview of what Ice Edge is about? And first, what Ikaaġvik Sikukun means? 

Yeah, sure. Well, thank you for being here and discussing Ice Edge today. So, Ikaaġvik Sikukun that is Iñupiaq, so the native language in Kotzebue, Inupiaq for ‘ice bridges’. And there’s a whole meaning behind that we wanted to create a project that represents communication between disciplines. So, the whole project is really about how we combined indigenous knowledge with Western science, ways of understanding climate change, and specifically how sea ice is changing in Northwest Alaska, in Kotzebue Sound. It is a subsistence communities. And it’s really important that people have a sense of security on the sea ice for travelling from village to village and also for hunting trips. So, Ikaaġvik Sikukun means ice bridges and ice edge. So, we came up with that name, basically, because things are changing very rapidly. And many of you already know that the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere in the world due to climate change. And so, we were able to witness the sea ice in a time where it was undocumented how little sea ice coverage there was in Kotzebue Sound and also how thin it was. And if you watch the film, you’ll see the lack of sea ice in that sound and hear from Elders how, in their lifetime, that sound was always covered by ice throughout the whole winter. And not only that, the sea ice now doesn’t exist in the sound for nearly as many months.

 

 

Well, let’s back up to the beginning. Tell us about how this project came together and how you got brought into the project. Is there something about your style of filmmaking or background that was being considered or that was right for this film?

Yeah, so this project came together originally, just from a couple leads in the project. So, we had Andy Mahoney who’s the sea ice specialist, he was the project lead for all the sea ice research and Chris, Christopher Zappa at Columbia University. He’s the lead PI. And I had previously worked with Andy Mahoney on other projects, not directly but a couple of projects with the University of Alaska Fairbanks where Andy Mahoney still works. And so, they were looking for someone to join the project, who was not only a filmmaker, but someone who was more also like an anthropologist. Because they wanted someone who could communicate with the local community and do interviews and knew a little bit about the culture. And Alex Whiting is another lead on the project. And he works with a tribe, he works with the environmental sector for the tribe. And I had also worked with him on projects, in that I always would coordinate with the tribe before starting any project or proposing any project in Kotzebue. And that’s kind of a new protocol in at least that region of Alaska where, if you’re wanting to do work in and around a native community, you really need to coordinate with the tribe, the tribal representatives first. And I had just completed my master’s degree at UAF in 2013, and my focus was cross cultural studies and how to work with tribal communities collaboratively. And at the time, I was approached about the project, which was roughly in 2017, I had already been working in Kotzebue since 2013. So, I’d been there for years and had learned a fair bit about the culture, and had already produced several films in that community, which can be seen on my website, farthestnorthfilms.com. And most of my published films are on there. And you’ll see a lot of films focused in the Kotzebue region, and within that borough. Alaska has boroughs, and they’re part of the Northwest Arctic borough. And so with my background, I do a lot of ethnographic filming. So, I focused on people and trying to film them in an authentic way where they’re going about their hunting in a way that’s not scripted. And so, I’m they’re more of an observer documenting that process. And so anyway, it was either Andy or Chris, who approached me and asked if I wanted to be part of the project, and that it would be a four year long project. And I told them, I was interested. And so the four of us, Chris, Andy, Alex, and myself, then started writing a grant proposal. The unique thing about that was that the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation had already approached our team members and actually asked us, if we would start a project like that, and that they were basically asking us to apply for funds to do that project, based on who we had on the team. And so, we were pretty certain that we would get the funding. And we did. And so once we got the funding, we then started finding other team members that could fit in doing the research that we wanted to do. But the interesting thing, and unique thing about the project was that the Moore Foundation allowed us to go into the community without an agenda, without everything already written out, in order to follow a more culturally sensitive protocol where we didn’t go in with an agenda to a community and say, “We think this needs to be researched.” We went into the community and said, “We have all these resources, and we have funding, what is it that you want to know more about in your changing environment here in Kotzebue Sound?” And so it was actually the indigenous Iñupiaq Elders who really directed the project, and they came up with the research questions, and that was the foundational starting point of our project.

 

 

Well, then take us to that exchange, what was the answer that they gave for the research question that they wanted to ask?

Well, yeah, so the research questions, there ended up being about six main research questions, and the gist of the questions related to marine mammals. And so they were interested in how the bearded seals are affected by the changing in ice conditions. Bearded seals are a staple food in that community. And it’s an animal that’s hunted in the spring. So when the sea ice breaks up. Also, another important staple food is ringed seals. And so we, or they devised questions related to bearded seal habitat. And so we were able to use our advanced technology to look at what the habitat looks like now. And also being guided by the Elders of what they already knew what seals need to survive. And then they also know as hunters what they need to go get the seals. So there was a lot of that. And then also, questions related to what’s going on in Kotzebue Sound water. So as far as sediment changing, because one thing that has happened is that the predominant wind direction has changed, which really influences the amount of sediment that’s in Kotzebue Sound. There was also questions related to what is making the sea ice less thick, and less of it in the sound? Is it ocean water, increasing in temperature? Or is it more so freshwater from a couple of rivers that drain into Kotzebue Sound? So, we looked at that for a couple of years. There was a couple questions that we weren’t able to really look into because of the lack of sea ice that it was quite dangerous in those years in 2018 and 2019. But also that, that influences the information that we got, and that we were able to say, “Well, we weren’t able to research this because it changed that much in those years.”

 

 

Well, we touched on this, you touched on this a moment ago, but I want to ask what it was like to work with the Iñupiaq indigenous people of Kotzebue, Alaska? Maybe you can tell the listeners a story that would help them get a sense for your life as an ethnographic filmmaker, most people probably don’t even know what that means. So tell us a story about how you approached filming with them.

Yeah, that’s a great question. And also why I thought it was great for you to do the interview, having been a travelling journalist for so many years, and going to remote communities. So, I’ve been interested in traditional ways of indigenous people for a long time, I’ve been interested in how people formulate traditions in their ancestral land, gathering plants for food and medicine, also, traditional hunting practices, fishing, and also gathering materials to make products. And something I’ve been interested in for at least 20 years. And I always had this dream of maybe, you know, going to small, remote, Amazonian communities, and I’d see these scenes in films and just think, “Wow, this is so fascinating. And so important to preserve that knowledge,” because it’s really the indigenous knowledge that helps us learn how we can live more sustainably on this planet, and how we can think more locally, locally for our food, locally for our medicine, locally for our products. And so that’s another component of why I went in that direction is that, I think we need to think more about sustainability and learning from Elders. And so ethnographic filmmaking is filming in such a way that you’re trying to capture the authentic essence of the way of life. And so, I’ll give you an example. Ross Schaeffer is featured in the film a bunch and I have been on many hunting trips with him at this point. ring seal hunting, beard seal hunting, hunting caribou, birds, fox, there’s probably some other things out there that I’ve filmed him hunt. And so what I do is I’ll tell them ahead of time, “I’m just here to film, how it is that you hunt. I know I’m here. But you know, feel free to explain anything as you go. But I just want to film how you actually go about doing it.” And I also, in my approach, like to put the informants in the director’s seat. And so they’re directing the scenes. And I feel like that’s more appropriate because I’m filming someone of a different culture than my own. And so over the years, he’s gotten better and better at being like, “Well, you should probably stand over there. And, you know, it’s important to get shots of the ice over there and my sled and my gun, and the seal.” And actually Cyrus too, he he set up this whole scene on another project with his dog sled team and had me film his wife and he had me stand on the snow berm and all that.

Sarah Betcher films an interview with Bobby Schaeffer at the edge of the sea ice. Photo by Donna Hauser.
Photo by Sarah Betcher.

So that’s really fun to see that process where I’m really putting the power in the hands of the people who I’m filming. And I’ve really immersed in that community over the years too. And so the shots that you see are, yeah, intentional, and I have the camera on but I’ve also had meals with those people many times, lots of time just drinking coffee or going out picking berries and helping hall things or wood and that kind of thing. And so when I’m out there filming, I really like it if I’ve developed some kind of a friendship with that person. They feel comfortable with me just saying what’s authentic for them, and telling stories and maintaining that authenticity. Because one thing that I at least notice while I’m filming is the sounds of the landscape, and those sounds influence how someone learns, what they’re listening for. It also captures the landscape in different ways, it captures the color of the sky, if the color of the sky changes, and maybe why, and how that person is moving throughout the landscape, dependent on what the clouds look like in the sky. And I mentioned clouds, because that’s really important when you’re out in the sea ice, because that tells you where the openings are in the water. And you’ll see scenes of that in the film to where the Elders are speaking about that. And so, I end up with a lot of video footage, more so than someone who would be filming using a script. And I also hope that when people watch the film, they get that sense of authenticity, that there is no script, and they’re really just having been prompt initially just explain what they’re doing.

 

 

Overall, this is definitely a science film, with indigenous knowledge of the land, and the ice, and the tradition traditional patterns of subsistence and economy woven in. Have you filmed other scientists? Is it challenging to make a film about a science that isn’t your specialty? Or is there a way to work with a topic so that you have enough information to put a story together about what is being showcased?

Yeah, great question. Yeah, it definitely is. This is a science film, science film woven with indigenous knowledge. And it’s heavy on science, there’s actually a lot of different science fields showcased in the film, and that were looked at in the project. And, you know, I could let myself get overwhelmed by that and say, “Oh, well, I’m not an engineer. And I’m not a marine biologist,” but I do a fair bit of research with my projects and I asked a lot of questions. And one way of getting around not being a specialist in all of those science fields, is there’s a lot of communication in the beginning, the middle, and the publishing time frame. And so when I’m putting together the film, or I’ll use this as an example, when I put together this film, I went back and forth between the scientists quite a bit. And so if I was editing together the payloads, for instance, the payloads that fit in the head of the drones, payloads are also the science equipment that would go in there. So laser technology, things like that. If I’m looking at footage, I’m also thinking about how if the broad audience, a broad audience, who isn’t a scientist is going to understand that. So there was some going back and forth in saying, “As I chopped up your interview, does this still make sense? And do you have anything that you would recommend that showcases what this is?” And so in a couple of instances, that scientists would create some kind of graphic representation, or even an animation. And you’ll see that in the film, and going back and forth. And usually what would happen is it would be totally above my head, and so then I would encourage them to simplify the information. And a lot of scientists that, you know, they talk in a different language, they’re using jargon that the regular public does not understand. And I want this film to be understandable by virtually anyone. And so, hopefully there was enough of that in the film to get across these intense science topics. And yes, I have worked on other science films. In the past, I’m actually just about to publish an archaeology film that’s also a feature length film. And so I worked with different fields of specialists and archaeology on that and, and I have filmed four at this point, it keeps getting easier for me. But I do think one thing that is important is if someone is documenting indigenous knowledge, that that is especially important because there’s a level of cultural sensitivity that’s really important, and to try to spend quality time in that community to also showcase and know what to showcase in the film. So I’m not only checking with the scientists, I’m also going back into worth quite a bit with the indigenous Elders. And so this film was looked at by many eyes several times before any final decisions were made. And that’s one thing that’s really different from a larger production company or a journalist. Usually there isn’t the drafts going back and forth with the people who are in the book or the document or the film. But I use a different approach. So, sometimes it takes me, you know, a year after I feel like I’m done to actually publish because of that going back and forth.

 

Has the community seen the film?

Yes. So, our original plan before the pandemic, was to finish the film, and the first showing, the first eyes on the film, were going to be the residents of Kotzebue. So, we were going to go there and do an in house film showing at the school or the Park Service or some large community center, but we were not able to do that. It’s not really encouraged to go to the small communities in Alaska. And not only that, it sounds like even now, here in 2022, that people are not gathering in large groups. So, what we did instead was there was a launch party in late January, and it was a virtual launch party that Columbia University hosted. And three of the Elders were on the call. And we had a host, I myself was on there, Chris Zappa, Donna [Hauser], three of the Elders, were on the call. And so that was really neat. So, I showed five little segments of the film, and then people who are on the team had chance to talk and also, the audience can answer questions. So, people in the community have seen it, it’s on YouTube, it’s published on YouTube, so people are able, and have been able to watch it on their own time.

 

 

So there was some footage that looked as if the ice was quite dangerous and wet. How did it feel for you to film in the spring of 2018 and 2019, when the ice was so thin and covered less of Kotzebue Sound? Were you afraid? Or did you take certain protocols to ensure your safety in those conditions?

Great question. Yeah, so Kotzebue sound, especially in 2018 and 2019, was what many people say very sketchy. It was thin, there wasn’t much ice coverage. And it was so different, that the Elders many times said, “We can’t use our traditional knowledge to navigate on the ice right now.” And Ross said in 2018, that he wouldn’t go out if someone paid to him. And he’s usually a very active hunter. So to hear that from him that he wouldn’t even go out. And they all at some point, had said that numerous times. And so, whenever I went on the ice, I was always with someone who could read the ice, and the sea ice is so hard to read, there’s over 30 words for sea ice in the Iñupiaq language. And there’s things to look at, there’s color, there’s crystal and structure, there’s layering of different textures that you can see, especially when it looks more like glass. And then there’s water on top, there’s water down below, there’s water that floods up. And all these things tell you what the ice is doing. And still, to this day of all the years, I’ve been working in the sea ice environment, I don’t feel comfortable reading it myself. And, you know, there’s also things like cracks, there’s cracks all over the ice, some of them are dangerous, and some of them are not. And there’s a way of telling by looking at it. And so I I did feel on this project at times that I was risking my life and I just decided to take that risk. And there were times where we felt especially unsafe and we wore life jackets, it got to that point. And we all joked about ir and laughed, and were kind of embarrassed to wear life jackets on the sea ice because locals don’t really do that. But it got that dangerous. But we were always listening to the Elders. And there were times where are they said, “You know, we can’t go out anymore this year, this spring, we need to stop doing research.” And so, you know, we listen to them, they’re the experts.

 

 

Does not going out on the ice, for them, mean an inability to hunt, and for the seals that they subsist on?

That’s a great question. And it actually depends on what type of seal they’re going after. So, and it depends on the time of year. You can’t hunt the seals anytime a year. And then at some point, all the ice goes away, and you don’t really see many seals.

 

 

So Sarah, this film was unique in many ways, and one that stands out for me is that it’s bilingual. In both the English and the Iñupiaq language, which is the indigenous language of the people featured in the film. Tell us how this was incorporated into the film. Whose idea was it and what was the process to incorporate another language into the narration of the film?

Yeah, I have worked on a few films over the years that are bilingual, or just in indigenous language, and I’ve made a few films in the Iñupiaq language. Some of my first films were in Iñupiaq. I did an internship with the Smithsonian, the Smithsonian Arctic Study Center, when I was a graduate student and I made six short films, and they had some Iñupiaq in there. And I worked with a language speaker Lorena Williams, who lives in Kotzebue, and she was one of the Elders on that project and there were two others. It’s always important to have another eye to look at the spelling and pronunciation. And so, I have continued to work with Lorena Williams over the years. She can write Iñupiaq very well, she has taught Iñupiaq at the college level. And not everyone that speaks Iñupiaq or can speak Iñupiaq knows how to spell it, right? Because that people haven’t been writing the language as long as they’ve been speaking it. But Lorena doesn’t know how to write it and speak it fluently. And she speaks the coastal dialect, there’s actually about five dialects of the Iñupiaq. I kept thinking about how knowledge is transmitted through languages. And when you go from one language to the next, there’s something that isn’t held. There’s a way of knowing held within a language. And Iñupiaq is an endangered language. And so whenever possible, I like to try to incorporate the Iñupiaq language. And I was able to ask Lorena if she wanted to participate in that. And so the way that got started was I first spoke with Alex Whiting at the tribe and asked, you know, how do you feel about this, about this being bilingual he was, he was great with it. And so I created a draft of narration. And it was looked at by Alex Whiting. And he’s lived in the community for many, many years and is married to an Iñupiaq woman. And then all of the four Elders on the project looked at the script, “Was it appropriate, was saying what is true about the community?” Because the thing with the script for the Iñupiaq is that it was all the place-based information, information about the community, their way of life. And so, I didn’t actually feel totally comfortable me being the one to draft it up. But because I was, I especially knew it was important to have all of them looking at the script. And once they were okay with it, and once we came up with the script we all liked, I then gave it to Lorena Williams, and she translated it. And then I had a friend of mine who is also a film producer and does audio recording. Her name is Holly Nordlum. And she went over to Lorena’s house and recorded her speaking, the Inupiaq and then it was incorporated in the film. And then the other narrator is myself. And I speak to the project itself and the science. So I did that on purpose that I’m not speaking about the way of life in Kotzebue, the local person who’s speaking Iñupiaq was talking about a local way of life, and so that I feel like that’s really important to maintain that.

 

 

So, in the film, we see that the researchers made use of these quite advanced high-tech drones. Could you talk about the drones that were used in the project?

Yes, so the drones, you could also call them UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), they’re fixed-wing drones. So, they not quadcopters, they’re about 16 foot wingspan. And these are the type of UAVs that are designed for military and military who are doing things like delivering blood samples across Africa, or resources. And there’s a pocket in the head of the drone, in our case, put science equipment there. And so, we had an engineering company Latitude L3 design our UAVs for our projects. So, unlike how they normally do things, where people will lease the use of a UAV, they actually engineered them for our purposes, considering the extreme climate, the wind, it’s always windy in Kotzebue, and then designed batteries for that temperature, and then also considered the humidity. And then, the payloads were engineered and designed at Columbia University. And before we started, we actually brought up like a small model of the drones, so that the community could kind of get prepared and know what was about to happen in the community.

Photo by Nathan Laxague.

 

 

What is your ultimate goal with the film? What do you hope of Ice Edge will take away from watching the film?

I guess I have a few goals for the film.  One is, I hope that people who are pursuing science research in and around small and indigenous communities gain a better understanding of how they might be able to go about a collaborative project. Include, not only including indigenous local people, but having the Elders team members and also helping to decide how research is carried out. And I’ve been listening to scientists for years, saying things like, “Oh, I’ve been working in this community for years and I’ve never eaten the local food, and I’ve never really talked to local people, I’ve never been in a local person’s home. I get to the community, I fly in, I go to bed, I wake up, and I go out into the field and I do my research. And I hear that almost every time. And so, I have slowly started to see a change in people at least wanting to engage more wit the local community. And so, I hope that scientists can maybe get some ideas by watching this film and maybe incorporate some of our methodology into their own methodology. Also, I hope that the film could possibly help influence funding agencies for what they’re willing to fund. They will be more open-minded to fund projects that, yes, are focused on science, but allow for the integration of more traditional knowledge. And I hope that the film showcases how beneficial it is to combine those two knowledge sets. That we’re able to gain a much, broader deeper understanding of these large topics, like climate change and sea ice change, and how they can be so complimentary to each other. And also, I hope that the rest of the world learns more about how climate change is impacting this Arctic community and why it’s important to gain a better understanding of how it’s changing, and if we’re able toi make any kind of predictions for how it’s going to continue to change. So that, local people can have a better sense of being able to trust their traditional knowledge while adapting to how rapid it’s changing. So that, people can maintain more of a sense of safety. And so, if we’re able to recognise the importance of maintaining that Iñupiaq way of life it’s really important that we learn how it’s changing and that we have resources and change policy in such a way that we can support doing more research relating to how people are impacted by change. And so, I’m pretty passionate about it at this point because I’ve been working in the community for over eight years and have really deeply learned a lot of things about the way of life there, and how important it is, and how those Elders, and in this film, have a stage for being able to talk to the world. And so, I really hope that their message gets out there. And I do want to mention that the Elders have said to me that they want their voice out to the world as broadly as possible, and they want people to hear their story. You know, one of the end scenes is two of the Elders speaking to Obama. And Obama was the first US president to go north of the Arctic circle during a US presidency and he made a speech in Kotzebue that he wanted to help out with what was going on, and it was all related to climate change. And so the Elders are speaking to Obama and basically requesting, “Hey, we’d love it if you came back and see how the landscape looks now because we still need help.” And so, hopefully there’s a way to reach out to either him or anyone who’s able to influence policy. Because really, this or any type of research takes a lot of funding. And so, it’s important that there’s agencies out there who see the importance of that and continue to fund that. And again, to fund these collaborative projects where we can combine indigenous knowledge and science.

You can watch the entire Ice Edge: The Ikaaġvik Sikukun Story film on YouTube.


Andy Isaacson (www.andyisaacson.net) is a journalist, photographer, and creative producer who has reported from all seven continents for National Geographic, The New York Times, and many other publications.

Sarah is an award winning documentary filmmaker and owner of Farthest North Films, a company specializing in films that communicate across cultures, especially showcasing indigenous traditions. She has traveled extensively around the world learning how indigenous people utilize local resources for food, medicine and lifestyle products. Since 2005, Sarah has been living as an ethnographic filmmaker and naturalist guide across many regions of Alaska. She has spent extensive time filming in rural Alaska producing many films, most of which can be seen on her website at www.farthestnorthfilms.com.