“I Am Yup’ik,” an ESPN Films 30 for 30 documentary short, does what most good documentaries do. It finds the larger story lurking somewhere inside the smaller story, waiting to get out. Ostensibly this film is about Byron Nicholai, a 16 year old Yup’ik Eskimo from tiny Toksook Bay, Alaska, whose team, the Toksook Islanders, has made the annual journey to Bethel for the All-Yup’ik District Basketball Tournament.
But the film, with a runtime of just a shade over 17 minutes, delves far deeper than that. Co-directed by Daniele Anastasion and Nathan Golon, “I Am Yup’ik” manages to find its heart and soul in Byron, a charismatic and talented basketball star who is coming of age in a harsh environment, left with the memory of a father who abandoned him and his family. He finds solace in two places: the basketball court and the Yup’ik culture (especially music) which gives him strength.
Passion for basketball in Alaska is intense, often being compared to how football is revered in Texas. And for the Yup’ik people, basketball has become a cultural touchstone; hunters coming off the ice eagerly wait to hear the latest scores, outdoor courts are regularly filled with kids trying to adjust their games for the inclement weather, and in the town of Toksook and other small villages there are basketball leagues which run almost every night.
But there may be no larger symbol of the importance of basketball than the yearly Coastal Conference Tournament in Bethel. It is more than just a tournament—it’s a chance for families to gather, for culture to be shared. It’s a pilgrimage, where Yup’ik people travel by plane or snowmobile to see some of the most intense high school basketball competition in the state, as the teams try to win three games and move on further into the state playoffs.
“I Am Yup’ik” was the brainchild of Patrick White, president and co-founder (along with Golon) of GoodFight Media, which is based in Washington, D.C. White spent summers in Alaska while growing up, and one of the places he became familiar with was Bethel, the town which becomes the center of the Yup’ik basketball world once a year.
“Patrick used to go up to Alaska to spend his summers,” Golon said. “His uncle lived up there and would take him fishing. And his uncle lived in Bethel, which is where the tournament took place. So when Patrick was there he learned about this really intense world of basketball in Alaska. When we were looking around for stories not too long ago, he said, ‘Well, what about this?’ and described what it was like up there. And we knew right away that that was the kind of environment where we could find a great story.”
And this is where “I Am Yup’ik” finds Byron, getting ready to play in this tournament. He feels not only the internal pressure that any competitor feels, but he knows how important the team is to his village. His family, friends, and almost everybody in town are emotionally invested in the team. As Byron wisely says, “One of the main reasons to play basketball is either because you love it or because you want to forget about something.” Or perhaps a little of both.
Since he was familiar with the area White did a lot of the pre-production and legwork to introduce the filmmakers to the teams, coaches and players that would become a part of the film. It was towards the close of the final regular season tournament where Anastasion and Golon began the interview process, and when they came across Byron, they knew immediately they had their subject.
“When we met Byron we knew pretty quickly that this was our guy,” Golon said. “He’s just such a thoughtful kid. He’s very comfortable in front of the camera. And he’s got a great story. He’s thinking about things that not a lot of 16 year olds are thinking about. He’s got a composure that I think is well beyond his age. And it certainly did help that he’s a star basketball player. And then you have on top of that how talented he is musically. And we just knew that there were so many great things to work with if we were to tell his story that he was going to be our guy.”
When asked if there was any trepidation on the part of any of the Yup’ik people about being involved with the film, Anastasion said that there was one great equalizer that brought most people on board.
“I think that people were so excited that we were telling a story about basketball,” she said. “We could have flown out to the region and tried to get access for any story and I don’t think there’s a subject that people are more excited about than basketball in the region. So to some extent, we were embraced very openly.”
For “I Am Yup’ik,” Anastasion and Golon were not only the directors—they were the whole crew. Anastasion ran sound for the production while Golon acted as the cinematographer. But for the two filmmakers, the pared-down aesthetic worked very well. They shot the film with a Canon C300, used a Canon 1D for a backup, and brought along a few Cinema lenses and a compact audio kit. And that was about it.
“I think in a lot of ways having a pared down crew was a real advantage to us,” Anastasion said. “The last documentary project that I worked on was called ‘Belief’ for Oprah Winfrey and it was a big ‘Planet Earth’ sized production so for a lot of shoots we had multiple units and a lot of specialty gear to get a lot of the shots we needed. And this was really the complete opposite experience. It was just me and Nathan. I was directing and running sound and Nathan was directing and shooting. It was the two of us out there and we had a really stripped down package because I think we felt that it was going to be the best way to navigate in the region just because of the travel and lugging all of that gear with the two of us. And also I think it was really the best way to approach the situations we were in.”
In “I Am Yup’ik,” Byron’s story is framed by the amazing landscape that is the Bering Sea Coast. Whether it’s the lonely vista of Byron walking alone in the village, or the amazingly haunting blue of the Alaskan dusk, this film is gorgeously shot. And for Anastasion and Golon, the small set-up seemed to work in their favor in that regard.
“I also think that we were ultimately also able to get a lot of cinematic shots just using what was available to us in the village,” Anastasion said. “For example, the shots of Byron walking through the village—we didn’t have a Steadi-cam or a Ronin, which is what we would have used if we could have brought it instead we just kind of strapped onto a little four-wheeler and shot from the back of it.”
As far as documentaries go, Golon seems to welcome the “shorts revolution.” We live in a world with a seemingly endless number of films to watch, and a million ways to watch them. And while a story like “I Am Yup’ik” could have been approached as a feature, there is no doubt that the finished film ended up as the length it was meant to be.
“And that was the big challenge for this particular story,” Golon said. “It was actually quite big. There were a lot of things that we would have liked to dig deeper into. But we knew that we needed to keep this short enough, particularly because it ended up as a 30 for 30 short. We had to make some really tough decisions about what do we keep, what do we need to just move past, what are the key moments going to be because of the length. And to be honest, I think that actually made for a better product because it forced us to be really disciplined. It forced us to really choose one strong storyline and stay with it.”
“I Am Yup’ik” had its premiere earlier this year at Sundance, and the film and its star were a natural fit for the festival. It’s clear by watching the short that Byron likes to perform on a big stage, and as Anastasion noted, being in Park City, Utah was no different.
“It was so incredible to be at Sundance,” she said. “I had been at Sundance in 2011 with a feature documentary called ‘The Redemption of General Butt Naked,’ which was about a Liberian warlord. And it was an incredibly stark and challenging film. And coming back to Sundance this year with ‘I Am Yup’ik’ could not have been a more different experience because it was a feel-good film about good people. I think the experience of being there with Byron and watching him perform—he basically held a concert at the music café there and did some traditional Yup’ik singing and he just had crowds cheering. At our screenings there were cheering and crying, and I don’t think that there could be a more feel-good experience.”
So as we enter (well, actually we’re pretty far in at this point) this brave new world of storytelling, where anybody can basically click on whatever they want to watch whatever they want, how do we keep reaching people with important stories that truly engage people through meaningful documentaries?
“I have this theory where it’s sort of like if you look out at the night sky and there’s billions and billions of stars out there,” Anastasion said. “You point your telescope in any direction and you’re going to see something incredible. I truly feel that way about documentary. You point your camera at something–at any story–there is something in there with meaning. You just have to work your way towards the meaning in whatever story you’re telling.”