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A Short Film Deeply Rooted in Western Alaska, Both in Front of the Lens and Behind It

Woman in black t-shirt stands in front of window with light streaming into room
Tristan Agnauraq Morgan, the featured artist in “Who We Are.” Image: a still from the film, used with permission.

Released last month, the short film Who We Are reflects on the coastal erosion affecting Alaska Native villages and shows how art and culture connect these communities to the land. The director of the piece says her reliance on Alaska Native actors and symbols is unique for the world of cinema.

Anchorage-based filmmaker Alexis Sallee wrote and directed the project with the idea of honoring her own Alaska Native family and culture. She decided to reach out to Tristan Agnauraq Morgan, a contemporary artist who shares Sallee’s Iñupiaq ancestry.

“I had been familiar with Tristan’s work and was really inspired by a lot of what she draws, and thought, wouldn’t it be cool to collaborate with another artist and someone who is indigenous like I am and shares similar perspectives. And then, wouldn’t it be amazing to honor my grandmother by filming in Nome, where she raised her kids and spent a lot of her life.”

Morgan is the protagonist of Who We Are. The two-minute film opens with her reflecting on the past as she stares out into the Bering Sea:

“I can stand on this shoreline and think of a time when our villages weren’t disappearing… when the land wasn’t being taken by the sea.”

Every element of the film — from the actors to the musical score — was sourced from indigenous talent. This was a conscious decision by Sallee and one that included behind-the-scenes work as well.

“That was really important to have an all-indigenous crew because… that never happens. That’s something I’m working more towards and wanting to embrace more indigenous stories with indigenous crew.”

Young woman holds slate for film shoot while standing on rural Alaska seacoast
A family friend of director Alexis Sallee holds a slate during a shoot for “Who We Are.” Photo used with permission.

The cast and crew decided to travel outside of Anchorage to film, and the majority of the short was shot in Nome and Shishmaref. Both locations were chosen because of their personal connection to Sallee’s past.

“My great-grandmother, her family comes from Shishmaref, and then her family migrated to Brevig Mission and then to Nome, where my grandmother spent most of her time growing up.”

Who We Are was submitted to the national “She Directed” film contest. The contest will award one winner $10,000 and the chance to win a professional mentorship, which is determined by public voting online.

Sallee says she is confident that her community will show their support for her film.

Image at top: Tristan Agnauraq Morgan, the featured artist in “Who We Are.” Image: a still from the film, used with permission.

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