epic resettlement of 200 farm families from northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to Alaska's remote Matanuska Valley circa 1935, under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration. Devastated by the Great Depression, the families -- many of Finnish heritage -- left behind everything that had been familiar for the uncertain prospects posed by the opportunity to start anew and establish a farming colony thousands of miles away.
Theirs is a story of courage, determination and enormous struggle -- elements summarized by the Finnish word sisu, which resists precise translation. Conceived, produced and directed by Paul Hill and Joan Juster, the film is itself the result of an epic undertaking that took 14 years to finish.
Juster talks with The Daily Page in an email interview from her home in San Francisco about her new documentary.
The Daily Page: When and how did you conceive Alaska Far Away?
Juster: There's a long, entertaining version of this story that revolves around the fact that I had never seen serious snow, so Paul and I took a vacation to Alaska in February 1994 because we had free tickets and could stay for free with our friend Jim Fox in a little town named Palmer. Seriously, though, until we happened to visit Palmer and heard Jim and his grandmother tell us about the colony, we had never even thought about making a film.
Hill: I don't really have anything to add to Joanie's explanation. All I can say is, it seemed like a great idea at the time, and now that the movie is done, I still think it was a great idea.
How did you first learn about the Matanuska Colony?
Juster: Through our mutual friend Jim Fox, who was born and raised in Palmer, and is the grandson of colonists. He is also a fine historian, and had spent many years documenting the history of the colony.
Hill: And Jim talking about it was one thing, but hearing Jim's grandmother, Irene Benson, talk to us about leaving her family and moving to Alaska, as we sat in the home that government had built as part of this rural resettlement project, made it come alive. We wanted others to feel that same way about this story.
What was it about the colony that compelled you to film a documentary about it?
Juster: Who can say why one idea will capture your imagination enough to change your life? The opportunity came along at a moment in our lives when we were both open to a major change. There were so many aspects of the colony project that we both found fascinating; we thought it would intrigue other people, as well. And we were particularly drawn to the ways in which New Deal programs had such a profound, lasting impact on so many American families.
Hill: I'll quote Sir Edmund Hillary on that one. Because it was there. No one else had really told the story, and we wanted to be the ones to do it.
Do either of you have any Finnish ancestry?
Juster: No, sorry to say. My Danish great-grandmother emigrated to California from the island of Bornholm when she was only 16. I've always been drawn to Scandinavian culture.
Hill: My family is Polish and Irish. My relatives who made the choice to leave their homes and start over in a new land are all long gone. I think that's what made the Colonists so exciting for me -- here were people who had made a decision just like the ones my grandparent and great grand-parents had made.
How did you muster the patience and perseverance to sustain the project through more than a decade of working on the production?
Juster: We had no idea it would end up taking 14 years to make this film -- we naively thought it would only take us a year or two. If we had had any idea of how much time or money it would take, we never would have had the nerve to start. And once we started, there was simply no concept of not finishing. We first heard the Finnish term sisu from one of the colonists; we knew we had to let him talk about sisu in the film. It's a concept that resonated for us, and it does for our audiences, as well.
Hill: I'll echo Joanie on this -- there was never a concept that we would not finish the project. It's just not in our personalities to give up, no matter what.
Devoting more than ten years of one's life to a documentary is the sort of commitment that might be too much for some people to bear. How often did you confront moments of doubt about the prospects for completing the project?
Juster: Never for one minute did we doubt that we would complete Alaska Far Away. From the moment we began, we knew this was a project that was meant to be, and that somehow we had been blessed with the opportunity to do it. The big question, every step of the way, has been how we would complete it. How would we ever find the money to keep moving the film forward? It's a challenge we face every single day. There are no easy answers.
Hill: There's self-doubt and there's real doubt. Of course we confronted self-doubt all of the time -- I mean, what were we thinking, we'd never done this before, how could we possibly think we could do this? This would instantly be followed by -- ooh, I just found a great piece of footage showing the new doctor in the temporary hospital building, this is going to be great.
Was there ever a point when you and Paul felt overwhelmed by it all?
Juster: Yes... As you can imagine, while we were making the film for 14 years, life went on -- births, deaths, illnesses, job difficulties, and every other challenge that life normally throws at you. Let it just suffice to say that there was a point, just a couple of years ago, when several major life challenges hit us simultaneously, at a particularly vulnerable moment in the life of the film. But somehow we got through it, because there was simply no alternative.
Hill: There were several instances where I felt we had hit the wall. When Jim Fox's grandmother, Irene Benson, who had been then the inspiration for our film, passed away suddenly, I think it first occurred to me that we weren't going to get this film done in time for everyone to see it. When Helen Palmer, one of our first and most favorite interviewees, died in 2006 at age 101, I felt it again. But the turning point was when my own father, who had been so supportive of this project from the very beginning, passed away as we began the final edit. I knew then that I had to get this finished for him as well as for me.
How did you manage to press on?
Juster: We both have tremendous support systems including our spouses, families, and friends, and we have each other. Paul is extraordinary: without his strength and courage, there would be no film. And, when we're up against the wall, there's sisu.
What were the greatest challenges you faced in terms of doing research for the documentary, and which aspects of the research did you find to be the most rewarding?
Juster: The greatest challenges were logistical: most of the archives and collections we needed to comb through, and most of the people we needed to interview, were far away from our homes in San Francisco. Many people today think you can do all your research online, but there's simply no substitute for visiting archives and digging through original documents, or interviewing people face to face. But the realities of travel costs, and the need to keep our day jobs throughout this whole process, limited much of our access to both archives and to people. We regret that there were a few colonists we never had the opportunity to interview; we simply couldn't afford to visit them all.
The rewards were immeasurable. I'm sorry to say that I never took history classes in college, so this project has been a marvelous education. We've been honored to work with top-notch historians like Wisconsin's own Arnold Alanen and Jack Holzhueter, who have been tremendously supportive of our work, as well as other historians around the country. And, of course, interviewing 150 people who were involved in the Matanuska Colony, hearing their first-hand stories of this grand adventure, was a privilege that changed our lives.
How do you think you might have fared if you had been a member of the Matanuska Colony?
Juster: I've lived my entire life within a 45-mile radius of where I was born. I can't even fathom the courage it took for the colonists to move 4,500 miles from home. Homesickness was a major challenge for them, and would have been for me, as well. Even today, in this global era, Alaska is very, very far away.
Hill: For years, we've tried to convince our historian, Jim Fox, to spend a summer in a tent at the State Fairgrounds in Palmer. He's never gone for it, and I can't blame him -- I can't see how these people were able to do it. If you can find a copy of Another Morning by Wessel Smitter written in 1938, I'd recommend it. This fictionalized version of the colony gives great insight into how difficult life for them must have been.
The project attracted financial support from foundations, businesses and individuals in and around Palmer, Alaska. How would you measure the significance of these contributions, both in terms of helping to finish the project and in terms of your gratification as filmmakers?
Juster: The importance of their contributions cannot be overstated: there would be no film without the financial support of foundations, humanities councils, companies, community groups, and, most of all, the almost 300 individuals who have pitched in to help tell the story of the Matanuska Colony. Paul and I both come from a background of community organizing; we built a grassroots network of support for this film. It has become more than just a movie: it has become a nationwide community history project.
Hill: Absolutely! Support and kind words are wonderful and appreciated, but there is something about people trusting you with money that changes everything. There is no way we could have possibly done this project without the financial support we received.
How did Peter Coyote come to narrate the film?
Juster: The short answer: we sent him an email, and he said yes. The slightly longer answer is that we wanted an experienced narrator whose voice was rough around the edges, someone who sounded like he understood farmers and hard times. And we though Peter would like the New Deal politics of the film. We were right on both counts, and he was wonderful for the film.
Hill: And working with him was a producer's dream. We were able to record him in less than two hours. We could say to him, "that was great, but it needs to be 1.5 seconds shorter" and he would do it again and it would be perfect. I'd heartily recommend him to any documentarian.
Several of the surviving colonists you filmed for the documentary died before the film was completed. As the number of survivors dwindled, did you feel a growing sense of obligation to tell their story -- an increasing sense of urgency to complete the film?
Juster: Yes, indeed. From the beginning we've been aware of the awesome responsibility we had taken on: we weren't just making a film, we were helping a community to preserve its history. And while the colony community has been extraordinarily supportive and patient during this long process, we have always felt the clock ticking.
Hill: From the very first, we felt that sense of urgency. We were interviewing people in their 80's and 90's -- we had to get the film done.
What were the most difficult challenges posed by editing 120 hours of footage down to 90 minutes -- and what were the easiest aspects of cutting the film down to size?
Juster: The hardest part -- aside from the sheer monumental task of organizing, transcribing, and logging all the material -- was having to leave some of our favorite people on the cutting room floor. Over the years we have grown to know and love the people we filmed. But you can only include so many characters in a film, so not all of them could be in the final cut. Our talented editor, Mark Lipman, helped us make those hard choices. Once the story started taking shape, and we saw what did and what didn't work with an audience, the cuts became easier.
Hill: We just had too much information. We know more about the Matanuska Colony than we ever thought we would. Before we decided who our main characters were going to be, we needed to decide what part of the stories we needed to tell and what parts would have to be saved for another project. Once we had a reasonable rough cut, the most fun was cutting a little here, changing a photo there, those little things that push a project from "very good" to "great."
When you screened Alaska Far Away in Palmer last summer, what were the most memorable audience reactions?
Juster: The most memorable reactions actually came after the very first screening we held in Palmer, in 2002. It was an early rough cut of the film -- very different from the final version. We created the cut because at the time we had no clue when we'd ever find the funding to actually finish the film, but we wanted to show something to the colony families while some of the original colonists were still alive to see it.
So we proudly took the rough cut to their annual colony reunion. The house lights went down, the film started, and suddenly we heard people exclaiming and crying out as they saw their loved ones and neighbors -- many long since deceased -- up on the big screen. They laughed, they sobbed, they called out "Grandma!" -- "Oh, look, it's my George!" -- "Mom!" We had forgotten that although we were making a documentary for the world, in many ways to that audience it was home movies.
But the best reaction came from a very intelligent young girl who said, "All my life I've seen pictures of the colony. But seeing them moving and talking onscreen -- suddenly the history became alive and real!" At that moment, all the struggles we had gone through seemed worthwhile.
Hill: For me, the best moment was the day before the screening. Joanie and I had flown up to Alaska that afternoon, and we were staying in Anchorage as we were meeting with people there. But the Palmer Historical Society, our fiscal sponsor from the very beginning, was having their monthly board meeting. I drove out to Palmer just to be able to walk into their meeting with the movie in my hand, to show them that we had kept our promise and told their story. There was something so dramatic and exciting for me at that moment.
How can the Wisconsin Film Festival audience best prepare themselves to get the most out of seeing Alaska Far Away?
Juster: Buy some popcorn and enjoy the show! We made Alaska Far Away to be entertaining as well as educational. Yes, it's historical, but essentially it's about just plain folks, like your own family or neighbors, who were given an opportunity to change their lives by taking part in an extraordinary historical event.
Hill: Be prepared to be informed and educated, but most of all, entertained. Oh, and please stay for the closing credits, as my daughter sings "Where the River Matanuska Flows."
Which question has nobody asked you about Alaska Far Away that you most wish somebody would ask? And how would you answer it?
Hill: I wish someone would ask me if I wanted lots of money for the rights to distribute Alaska Far Away and I'd say "Oh, yes." Seriously, no one has ever asked me if I'm glad we made the movie. The answer would have been different at different times in the process, but now that the film is done, I can definitely quote colonist Helen Palmer... "I wouldn't have missed it for the world..."
Beside your own work, what was the last documentary you watched that you would recommend to friends, neighbors and complete strangers -- and why would you recommend it?
Recent film: Phoenix Dance by Karina Epperlein. An absolutely gorgeous and inspiring film. And a classic documentary: The Times of Harvey Milk, which captures a man, an idea, and an historical era brilliantly and movingly.
Which two or three documentaries would you cite as your all-time favorites? What qualities do they share that you find most appealing, and how have they influenced your own work?
I'm particularly drawn to films that give us a window into another culture, while focusing on our shared humanity. Three classic documentaries in particular helped shape Alaska Far Away both philosophically and visually: Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty, and the brilliant New Deal documentaries by Pare Lorenz: The River and The Plough that Broke the Plains. Other personal favorites include The Times of Harvey Milk by Rob Epstein, The Saltmen of Tibet by Ulrike Koch, Sing Faster by Jon Else, and Lessons of Darkness by Werner Herzog.
Which of the other films at this year's Wisconsin Film Festival are you most eager to see?
Salim Baba because it sounds charming and intriguing, Hollywood Chinese, because the subject is interesting and I admire Arthur Dong's work, and The Linguists, because of my fascination with disappearing cultures. And, of course, All the President's Men and Man of the Century on the big screen.
What are you working on now? And what's next on your filmmaking to-do list?
Preparing Alaska Far Away for release is taking all our energy right now. And there are several ancillary historical preservation projects stemming from Alaska Far Away that need to be finished, as well.
What would be your dream filmmaking project?
Alaska Far Away has been my dream project -- a dream I didn't even know I had until I was living it.
Alaska Far Away marks its Badger State premiere in the 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival at 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 5 in the Bartell Theatre. Though advance tickets for are sold out, there will be rush admission at the door. Both Juster and her co-director Paul Hill are scheduled to attend and answer questions after the screening.