Jollof rice? Or, burger & fries?
An Alaskan Story
AlaskaLand, the first feature film from Nigerian-American writer/director Chinonye Chukwu, was shot in Fairbanks, Alaska, over a period of two weeks this past winter.
Based in Fairbanks, the story follows the lives of an estranged Nigerian-American brother and sister who reunite in Fairbanks after the sister spends two years living in Nigeria with an uncle, following the death of the siblings' parents in an automobile accident.
Produced by Maya Salganek (assistant professor of film/video at University Of Alaska Fairbanks), Jamila Capitman, and Chukwu, the film is in post-production in Philadelphia, where Chukwu currently resides.
Chukwu recently spoke with me over the phone about "AlaskaLand", and what it was like growing up as a Nigerian-American in Alaska.
Born in Nigeria, Chukwu spent the majority of her childhood in Fairbanks and studied at UAF, including a screenwriting class, before moving to Philadelphia and completing her Master of Fine Arts. In addition to having taught undergraduate courses at Temple University, she runs a short-film slam (similar to poetry slams) and works with the local youth community.
Her MFA Thesis film, "The Dance Lesson", was a regional finalist for the 2010 Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Student Academy Awards.
During our conversation Chukwu laughed easily and often, and was a pleasure to speak with. I will be keeping an eye on the progress of "AlaskaLand" and hope that it finds an audience and success when it is finally released.
Matt Shields: A two-week shoot? For a feature film?
Chinonye Chukwu: [laughing] Well, I only had two weeks off from my day job... Actually, there were a couple things. We were trying to reach a deadline for a narrative filmmaker's lab, which we didn't get, but was a blessing in disguise. And, it was the only time I could get certain crew members, who I really, really, wanted to work with. Who I've worked with for years and they could only give me two weeks during that time period. And we needed to shoot in Fairbanks during that time to make sure we still had snow and ice, which the story needed to make sense.
MS: Still, that's like a 'Roger Corman' shooting schedule. Any panic moments?
Chinonye: There was never a time I thought to myself, "This is impossible, what the heck am I doing". I knew it was going to be crazy and rigorous...
The first question I asked the crew and cast members was, "Are you ready to do this in two weeks? Do you believe that this is possible"? And I told them, "You have to believe that this is possible in order for you to be a part of this journey", and everybody was really down.
MS: How much preparation was there? Was every moment storyboarded?
Chinonye: Well, to be very honest, we didn't storyboard anything. There were definitely a lot of moments where we thought of things on the whim because of time constraints -- for example, if we only had a finite amount of time to get a scene, we asked ourselves what would be the most visually interesting way to shoot this scene that was also the least time consuming...
We definitely developed a rhythm. Everyone was amazing, but it took some meticulous planning ahead of time. The actors and myself rehearsed for about a month and a half before shooting.
Also, we had two cameras. We used the Canon 5D Mark II -- we usually shot with one, but there were times we were running out of time, so we used the second camera.
MS: Why did you chose to shoot digitally, versus film?
Chinonye: [Besides the] cost and convenience, it allowed us to edit as we went. One of the smartest decisions I've ever made in my life because we were able to catch mistakes. Because of our budget we knew we couldn't fly back for re-shoots, and every night myself, the editor, AD [assistant director], producer, and DP [director of photography] would be in a hotel room looking at footage. We were able to catch technical issues -- such as crossing a 180 degree axis -- or scenes that weren't working for some reason, and re-shoot.
Also, by editing as we went, we had half a rough cut by the time we got back to Philadelphia, so it was a big time saver and kept us ahead of the game.
MS: Where you able to pay anyone? Or was this a "commitment of the heart"?
Chinonye: Yes, we paid a majority of the crew members. Something that helped a great deal was that the University of Alaska Fairbanks was a co-sponsor on this project, not in a financial sense, but they helped provide students from their undergraduate film program who worked on the crew in many aspects, and we were able to pay some of them as well.
MS: Any Alaskan crew besides UAF students?
Chinonye: Yes, lots of Alaska crew. Our entire camera department was Alaskan.
MS: What about casting the Nigerian characters?
Chinonye: Principle actors came from outside of Alaska. "Chukwuma" [the brother] is played by Alex Ubokudom, a Nigerian-American who is a formally trained actor from New York. The man who played the Uncle, an older Nigerian who needed to speak Igbo, lives outside of Philadelphia, and Chioma Dunkley, the actress who plays the sister, "Chidinma", is a Nigerian-American who lives in Philly. Most of the other actors were cast in Fairbanks.
MS: You grew up in Fairbanks?
Chinonye: For twelve years, yes.
MS: What is the Nigerian community like in Fairbanks?
Chinonye: When I was growing up there there was a significant Nigerian community in Fairbanks. It was much larger in Anchorage, because that's where most of the engineering jobs are in Alaska, and a lot of Nigerians there are in the oil industry.
MS: Your father taught at UAF, correct?
Chinonye: Yes, he taught there for twenty-five years. And he was responsible for bringing a lot of the Nigerians into Fairbanks for studying... [laughs] My father is a social-butterfly, so if you were Nigerian, we knew you. He would go out searching for people and bring them to the house, and it was also because it was so important to him and my mom that my siblings and I were constantly immersed in Nigerian culture. Because they knew that once we leave our house, which was a very traditional Nigerian household, that we were going to be purely surrounded and exposed to American life.
MS: Is the story in "AlaskaLand" autobiographical?
Chinonye: It was inspired by real-life emotions, and things that I've observed, things that I've heard about, but very few events in the film are things that I've experienced...
Part of Chukwuma's conflict is that he's trying to appease some of his black American male friends, trying to live up to the image of being a black-American male. And even for myself as a child, and even into high school, it wasn't cool for my mother to show up at school wearing traditional Nigerian attire and bringing me Jollof rice, you know? I just wanted burger and fries.
MS: Talk a bit about the sister character, Chidinma. She grows up in Alaska, then when she's fourteen leaves for Nigeria where she spends two years before returning to the U.S., now fluent in her native language.
Chinonye: With the sister, she comes back fluent in their native language, which is a really big deal. Particularly for a first-generation American to not be fluent in their native language... I am not completely fluent in my native language and that has definitely made my forming of identity and self much more difficult, because I'm trying to figure out where I fit in, and even with as much of the culture that I know, and as comfortable as I am when I travel to Nigeria, me not being fluent in the language has always been a kind of wedge...
Chukwuma, the brother, is not fluent in the language, and the fact that the sister is -- there's definitely a cultural dichotomy going on between them. It makes it difficult for the sister when she returns because she's definitely a fish out of water.
She also now has a different perspective of the U.S., of Alaska. With her being a female -- I mean we live in a very patriarchal world, but Nigeria specifically is extremely patriarchal, so she's had to succumb to a lot of sexism and a gender-based hierarchy in Nigeria -- and going from that to something that's not as extreme back in Alaska, in the U.S., is challenging for her.
MS: How did you handle those moments with the actress who played her?
Chinonye: She's Nigerian-American and has been back to Nigeria -- it was very important for me that the actors who played the main characters were at least first generation Nigerian-American -- and we spoke about figuring out those moments where she could incorporate her personal experience into the character.
MS: It's refreshing to hear about "story" in addition to simply how beautiful Alaska can be as a backdrop for movies... How much was Alaska incorporated into the storytelling?
Chinonye: It's mostly in the story and characters, but Fairbanks is also a character in the film. There is one shot, probably one of my favorites in the film, and we're looking at the frozen Tanana River, and we shot on a ridiculously wide lens, probably a 12mm, and there was this expansive river, and mountains, and trees, and the lead character walks into frame as such a small figure at the edge of the frame and he becomes engulfed by this natural beauty of Fairbanks...
MS: As both the director and being involved with the editing, have you had the problem of falling in love with certain shots and not being able to get rid of them, even when they don't serve the story?
Chinonye: This is where our editor really shines. He doesn't hold back. We've worked together for several years now and if something sucks he'll say, "This sucks and shouldn't be here".
MS: How did you get funding?
Chinonye: We raised part of the money, and then had investors
MS: Did you participate in the Alaska film tax incentive?
Chinonye: Our budget wasn't high enough, and also not all of the money went towards an Alaskan business [to qualify, productions must spend a minimum of $100,000 of qualified expenditures in state].
MS: Can you talk a bit about Alaska-based producer Maya Salganek?
Chinonye: Maya was my teacher and I was also a production assistant on the film "Chronic Town" that was shot in Fairbanks [Maya co-produced Chronic Town, which was featured in the 2008 Sundance Film Festival].
The film wouldn't have happened without Maya. She was a producer in the traditional way. She got crew together, helped with logistics, got a lot of the locations, helped us with the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] paperwork, she was phenomenal. When we were shooting I was able to focus almost exclusively on just directing.
MS: Do you have an approach worked out you like to take as a director?
Chinonye: I feel like it's still evolving. And I learn from each production. With "AlaskaLand" I realized the importance of specificity, and being very clear with my vision for each character in the story with the actors, but also giving them room to add their own kind of touch. We talked heavily about each character. If something was going in a direction I thought wasn't consistent with the character I was very honest with the actor in telling them, and very clear about why. I think the actors really appreciated that.
MS: Is there a plan for distribution? Festivals? Self distribution?
Chinonye: All of the above! We've started by trying to build a buzz. You can't be dependent on festivals, that's like a lottery. It's going to take a grassroots effort with this project.
MS: Thank you for your time, Chinonye, and good luck.
Chinonye: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Where's The Fire? Filmworks LLC
University of Alaska Fairbanks Film Program
"Like" AlaskaLand on Facebook
(Photos courtesy Chinonye Chukwu)