Filmmaker Catharine Axely embraces the challenges of shooting in Alaska and dogsled racing for her film ATTLA

Filmmaker Catharine Axely embraces the challenges of shooting in Alaska and dogsled racing for her film ATTLA

GOOD DOCS sat with down with director Catharine Axely to discuss her latest film ATTLA, which tells the gripping but little-known story of George Attla, an Alaska Native dogsled racer who, with one good leg and fierce determination, rose to international fame and became a legendary sports hero. Interview conducted by Nina Young. 

When did you first learn George Attla’s story? 
I first went to Alaska after following the early career of my friend, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, who had recently been involved in the legislative effort to recognize Alaska Native languages as official languages of the state. While there, I came across an article about George Attla and was immediately in awe. Here was an 80-year-old who had dominated his sport for decades, was considered a rockstar, a living Alaskan legend, and yet, was just beginning a new chapter of life. After years in the spotlight, George had returned to his village of Huslia, Alaska, and founded a program in his late son’s name to introduce a new generation to dog mushing. 

At first, a youth dog mushing program seemed like a totally different arena from the language revitalization efforts that had initially brought me to Alaska. But I soon found there were many parallels and I was intrigued by a topic that would confront my own biases of what cultural revitalization could actually look like. Then once I read more about George’s childhood and racing career, and how it intersected with Alaskan history, I knew I had to get in touch.

For students who haven’t heard about George Attla and his tale of perseverance, including his childhood disability, can you explain how he became a sports hero in Alaska? 
Yes, George’s story is a remarkable one! George is Koyukon Athabascan and was born in interior Alaska in 1933 into a subsistence lifestyle that was centered around dogs. His family lived almost entirely off the land - trapping during the winter and fishing in the summer. Dogs were not only their transportation, but also companions and guardians in a climate that could be deadly. At that time, and still today, there are no roads leading to interior Alaska, so the only way to travel was by river barge during the summers, and by small plane, or dogsled in the winter. George’s memories of an idyllic childhood ended abruptly when he was afflicted with tuberculosis of the bone at eight years old. For the next nine years, he was in and out of the hospital, and spent a large block of time in a sanitarium a thousand miles away in Southeast Alaska. There, not only was he isolated from his family and community, but no one spoke his language, Denaak’e (or Koyukon) Athabascan. He was lucky to survive but his return home was far from easy, as he lost some of his own language, and his right knee had been fused due to his TB, resulting in a limp. One can only imagine how challenging it must have been for him - he was a teenager coming of age in a lifestyle that was very physical, and had a significant physical limitation. George also felt a cultural and linguistic gap with his peers; there was a stretch of time when he really struggled with his identity and sense of belonging. Like his sister notes in the film, dogs became key to his determining who he was and who he could be. They not only helped him get around, but they represented something at which he could excel. He learned from other local and visiting dog mushers as much as he could, and surprising his community, he decided to enter the 1958 Fur Rendezvous World Championship race in Anchorage. Almost everyone doubted his ability to compete in what was then the world’s most popular sprint race, but he shocked them all, including his own family, when he not only successfully competed, but actually won! Overnight, George became known as the winning rookie musher from Huslia. What made George a sports legend over fifty years of racing, however, was his keen ability to “read” dogs and train those with potential into winning teams, in addition to his charismatic public persona. 

Why did you decide to represent a fairly unknown-indigenous story through documentary? 
Yes, that’s a great question – because in fact, there’s a 1979 narrative film based on George’s childhood leading up to his first race that’s called Spirit of the Wind. It’s a beautiful film that features Rose, George’s sister, playing the role of George’s mother and great performances by Pius Savage and Chief Dan George. But one of the elements of George’s life and story that drew me in the most was seeing George as an older man - who was he after all of these years of racing, what was his life like as an 80 year old? What motivated him to work with kids in his community? Sharing the real George Attla - including his inquisitive, charming personality late in life - and his passion for passing on a cultural tradition became the central goal of the film. 

Who was involved in the making of the documentary (advisors or crew) to contribute a cultural perspective? 
The film originated as my student thesis project while studying in the Documentary Film and Video MFA program at Stanford University. I was considering making a short film on the legislative efforts in Alaska to recognize Alaska Native languages as official languages of the state, and was fortunate to be able to take a one-on-one class entitled “Native American Identity in the American Imagination” with ATTLA Advisor Delphine Red Shirt. Professor Red Shirt’s class and guidance were transformative, and I was particularly struck by our reading together of Phil Deloria’s books, especially his 2004 Indians in Unexpected Places. Deloria notes the importance of placing American Indian and Alaska Native people at the center of the American historical narrative, and the need to challenge the ways in which they have long been objects of both cultural obsession and erasure. Professor Red Shirt’s class and Phil Deloria’s books resonated with me so much so that I recognized immediately how Attla’s story could highlight a complex, cross-cultural portrait of a man whose life and trajectory defied the stereotypes surrounding indigenous people in our country. Professor Deloria also became an advisor later on in the production of the film, and I am so grateful for both of them and their work. 

Evon Peter (Gwich’in and Koyukon) became a part of the film as Associate Producer/Cultural Advisor through an interesting route. As Vice Chancellor of Rural Community and Native Education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Evon first appeared in front of the camera, when Joe Bifelt (George’s grandnephew) met with him for guidance on how to continue his college education remotely from Huslia in order to continue training with George. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Evon was producing the 2017 PBS film We Breathe Again, documenting the stories of four Alaska Native individuals grappling with trauma and suicide. After that chance filming opportunity, we stayed in touch with Evon and followed his progress on his film and its release. Evon then took on the role as an interviewee and as an advisor when we were searching for more historical and cultural context, and though we ultimately did not incorporate the interview in the film, his insights and framing of George’s story in the context of Alaskan and Alaska Native history were essential in our shaping of the film. 

I should also note that though Joe Bifelt is not an advisor or crew member - he’s the main participant - his input has been central to the film. I conducted hours and hours of voice interviews with Joe over the course of over three years, and his reflections on his experience with George and his analysis of his community and the role of dogs in the past and today have undergirded everything in this film. 

Can you tell us about the film’s construction: did you anticipate that George Attla’s health was in flux and was there anticipation regarding his grand-nephew Joseph Bifelt’s final race? 
George’s illness was a surprise to all of us. In fact, it wasn’t until a few weeks before he passed away that we had a clear diagnosis. We began filming in November, and by early January, George was hospitalized in Anchorage. His main goal at that point was to see to it that Joe would make it to the race, and once we knew his prognosis, he was determined to stay alive long enough to see Joe race. He even identified which window in the hospital he could wheel himself to in order to watch Joe run by, if he was unable to leave the hospital itself. (At that point, Joe and George were training for the Fur Rendezvous race, held in Anchorage, where George was hospitalized at the Alaska Native Medical Center.) George continued coaching Joe from afar, using GoPro videos, and going over Joe’s timesheets with him. By mid-January, George arranged for Joe to leave Huslia with the dogs to continue training in Willow, AK, to become acclimated to Anchorage temperatures. I traveled with Joe to then visit George, whom he hadn’t seen in nearly three weeks. Their reunion was bittersweet - George was himself, witty and sharp, but it was clear that he was very sick. A few weeks later, George passed away, and the whole state mourned. The initial race Joe had been training for - the Fur Rendezvous - was then canceled a week after George’s death due to lack of snow. Joe demonstrated incredible strength and resolve: he and his supporters decided to continue training in order to compete in the 2015 Open North American race, fulfilling George and Joe’s dream to race in a world-class race.

Whose perspectives were most important to highlight in ATTLA, from George’s family to his dog mushing competitors? 
When I started making this film, I didn’t know how much of George’s past we would be sharing, so I focused entirely on capturing the present-day story of him mentoring Joe. By the end of the year, however, I realized that in order to understand the significance of George and Joe’s mentoring, and Joe’s participation in the 2015 Open North American dog sled race, it was essential for audiences to learn George’s story and understand the economic and cultural shifts in Alaska through the lens of dog mushing. To tell that story, we conducted interviews with George’s family, friends, journalists and photographers who had documented his career, fellow mushers, and his biographer. In the edit, however, our consulting editor, Lawrence Lerew, astutely recognized that we had too many voices for an archival through-line that needed to be seamlessly interwoven with the subtle and gentle through-line of George’s and Joe’s relationship. Per Lawrence’s intuition, we decided to create a rule where we used interviews primarily of George’s family, and included anecdotes and memories from people who were present during the moments they describe.

What can you tell us about the difficulty of filming in Alaska for long periods of time and filming action shots of dogsled racing? 
Yes, the biggest challenge for filming logistics was the cold - not only for ourselves, but for the camera and sound gear as well. We were lucky to be able to borrow serious jackets, snow pants, and fur hats from George, his partner, Kathy, and their wide network of friends and family in Fairbanks and Anchorage. I didn’t realize how effective real fur was, until I was in 20-30 below weather, and after that, I could not go back to the synthetic hat I had brought from California. 

I was also very lucky that my twin brother, Andrew, taught himself how to operate a drone and joined for two shoots during production to record sound and capture the aerials of Joe’s New Years race and North American race. We were inspired by the 1979 film Spirit of the Wind and its beautiful helicopter shots that show George (played by Pius Savage) training and then racing in the 1958 Fur Rondy race, but we were on a student budget so had to find an affordable (and safe) way to capture the incredible landscapes of course Joe wore a GoPro while training and racing to review the dogs’ movements and receive feedback.

The film contains interviews, observational footage, and extensive archival footage: how did you acquire that archival footage of races and George in his youth? 
We were fortunate to be able to work with two incredible archives in Alaska: The Alaska Film Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association. Both of these organizations have meticulously preserved and cataloged reels and reels of films - amateur home movies, news archives, professional films… through the massive collections,  it’s clear how central dog races were to Alaskans and Alaska visitors. Late in the edit, we were searching for archival footage of trophies to help in our opening montage to visually establish George as a champion. I reached out to Angie at the Alaska Film Archives to see if she could help us find generic shots of trophies from the many races they have on film, and she pulled out a reel identified as “trophy ceremony” for a late 1960s/early 1970s North American race. When she sent me a preview clip, she wrote, “I think I just found your trophy shot.” Not only had she found a great trophy shot, she had found a 30-something-year-old George Attla being handed a giant trophy for his win, when the camera zooms into his face, and he looks directly into the camera lens. It was a shot we could only dream existed, and now we had it! 

Then AMIPA had an early 1940s/50s reel from interior Alaska, and we were able to positively identify not only shots of George’s village, Huslia, but also that the young man sitting in the snow, looking into the camera, as he sips from a thermos was George! 

We were also fortunate to be able to use early photos from George’s siblings’ personal archive collections, and beautiful color photographs taken with an Argus C3 by a missionary couple who lived in Huslia in the 1950’s. And then, because we knew that many Alaskans have documentation of races in their personal collections, we launched a community campaign for archival images and home movie footage, and found a few more great shots.

What vision did you have for the use of music, composed by William Ryan Fritch, in ATTLA
Working with Will was an absolute dream - he watched an early (very rough!) cut of the film and immediately understood how to find a balance between a folksiness, inspired in part by traditional Athabascan fiddling, with a sweeping, heroic vastness, representing the incredible landscape and legendary status of George’s career. Will not only composed all of the music, but performed it all himself as well. He was able to create a few musical themes that recur that ease the audience’s transition from past to present, and that allow for a subconscious attachment to the trajectory of George’s life, despite its vignette-style presentation.

The film follows George Attla passing on knowledge to his grand-nephew Joseph. How does the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program, which was established by George Attla, also contribute to cultural revitalization in Huslia? 
George founded the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program in 2012 in response to his late son Frank’s tragic death at age 21 due to an asthma attack in 2010. Frank had learned dog mushing from his father, had participated in junior races, and, what was surprising to his dad at the time, had been passionate about working with kids learning how to mush. After his son’s death, George recognized the power of Frank’s dedication to youth, especially considering the high rates of suicide among Alaska Native youth. George began a new chapter of life to use the practice and sport that had defined his life and career in a new way - as a form of cultural revitalization to connect youth with elders, introduce them to outdoor activities around dog care, and in so doing, share with them a cultural tradition that has been part of interior Alaskan life for thousands of years. 

After George’s death in 2015, Kathy Turco, his partner, the village of Huslia, and two other school districts in the interior were awarded a grant to expand the work of the Frank Attla Youth & Sled Dog Care-Mushing Program by creating A-CHILL (the Alaska Care and Husbandry Instruction for Lifelong Living program). Today, this program continues to connect students with local community members to hone science, math, and language arts skills, expanding college and career-readiness through cultural activities.

What can audiences take away with them after watching ATTLA, regarding identity, community, and intergenerational traditions? 
I hope viewers will enjoy learning about George’s incredible story, and will be inspired by his perseverance, strength, and his focus as an older person to evaluate his legacy and work with the next generation. Though the film touches on loss and hardship, ultimately ATTLA is about finding one’s identity; from a young George, returning to his village in 1951 as a TB survivor and discovering dogsled racing as a way to realize his ambitions; to a young Joe in contemporary Alaska, exploring the same sport as a means to forge a closer relationship with his elders and their shared cultural traditions. 

As Joe has pointed out many times, his year with George provided him lessons and connections afforded him with strength and determination, helping Joe to complete his college education and become a 4th grade teacher!