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A Chat With One of the Smokin’ Fish Filmmakers

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Smokin' Fish tells the story of Cory Mann, a Tlingit entrepreneur who decides to spend a summer at his family's fish camp in Alaska. Reconnecting with his roots proves challenging, enlightening, and more than a little bit humorous at times—the film's vignettes explore Tlingit culture as well as the simplest truths of family life. Smokin' Fish has been selected as the closing film of the Native Cinema Showcase, which takes place in Santa Fe concurrent with the Santa Fe Indian Market. We spoke with the film’s producer and co-director, Luke Griswold-Tergis about this insider view of Tlingit culture and personal history.

Indian Country Today Media Network: Can you tell us about the film and how it became reality?
Luke Griswold-Tergis: It’s the story of Cory Mann going up to his family’s fish camp. He spends the summer smoking fish while trying to run a business. It’s about the demands of the modern world and how they intersect with a traditional way of life in the fish camp.

Who is Cory Mann?
Cory is a Tlingit man who sells scarves with Tlingit designs. He also runs a small tour company. When he was three, he hitchhiked with his aunt from San Diego to Alaska. He grew up in Haines, Alaska but thought he was Mexican before he got to Alaska. He was raised by his great-grandmother, grandmother and other women in his family. His great-grandmother supplied the whole community with smoked fish. Cory had never seen snow, or been around other indigenous peoples before he moved to Alaska, so he had to cope with that. We tried to squeeze in as much culture, history and tradition as we could into the film, but we just brushed the surface.

How did you become involved in the project?
I met Cory ten years ago when I was hitch hiking through Southeast Alaska. His roommate invited me to sleep on their floor. I got to talking with Cory about his concern about the loss of history from the Tlingit elders. We thought it would be a cool opportunity to video tape some oral histories. Video equipment is cheap, and we thought we could just start doing it. About six years ago, Cory’s grandmother died, and he was inspired to do something more because of her. The initial version of the film was just an oral history project. We thought we could shoot in summer and edit in fall, and by winter be in film festivals. Now six years later, the film is just finished and being distributed. Neither one of us had been to film school or studied media, so we had no idea how much time, money, and effort it takes to make a film.

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How did the documentary film evolve?
The first funding came through my grandpa, who purchased the video camera because I wrote a grant proposal and he was willing to take the risk. He’s into culture and traditional history. The first major funding came from Native American Public Telecommunications and Native Networks, which is part of the PBS minority consortium. We applied several times, and they liked what they saw, but it was obvious to them that we didn’t know what we were doing. They kept encouraging us to work on it and put us in contact with Jed Riffe, from Berkley, who put together a professional budget and other logistics. Jed connected us with Maureen Gosling who became the editor and made huge contribution. She was really important in taking project to next level and helping us with good story telling.

What do you want viewers to take away from the film?
We both, Cory and I, want others to learn more about Tlingit culture and history. Of course, we had to simplify it and not take on all of Tlingit history. There’s too much to tackle in this ancient culture. Cory definitely sees the absurdity in life, and so we wanted this to be a comedy, too. Cory always asks why Native films are always depressing. And much Native media falls into stereotypes. There’s a lot of diversity and humor in Cory’s life and family, so it made sense to make something positive and funny. Sure, there’s a little bit of heavy content, but overall the film has a positive outlook. Many people in Cory’s community have positive outlooks, and the film reflects the beauty of that.

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