A documentary about Tlingit veterans from Hoonah, Alaska who saw combat during the Vietnam War won the Big Sky Award at the Big Sky Film Festival in Missoula, Montana.
The annual festival took place February 19-28; winners were announced February 26.
In “Hunting in Wartime” (66 minutes), Tlingit veterans of the Vietnam War talk about surviving trauma, relating to Vietnamese civilians, readjusting to civilian life and serving a government that systematically oppresses Native people.
The film was directed by Samantha Farinella of New York’s One Angry Woman Productions, whose first feature documentary, “Left Lane,” won eight awards and was featured in more than 40 festivals.
Farinella has also worked as a producer and videographer for Nickelodeon, MTV, and The History Channel.
“Hunting in Wartime” has screened in 13 venues in seven months, including the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, the National Archives, the American Indian Film Festival, and the Hanoi Cinematheque.
“Their stories give an important human face to the combat soldier and show the lasting effects of war on individuals, families and communities,” the jurors wrote of “Hunting in Wartime.” The jurors were Melinda Booth, Wild & Scenic Film Festival; Kathy Kasic, filmmaker; and Eileen Rafferty, photographer/media artist.
The film was one of 140 selected for the festival – out of more than 1,400 entries – and screened during the week at four theaters in downtown Missoula. The week includes workshops, presentations by filmmakers, and receptions.
The winner of Best Mini Documentary (films 15 minutes and under) was “Mining, Poems, or Odes,” about an ex-shipyard welder from Scotland who reflects on how his life experiences have influenced his newfound compulsion to write.
The winner of Best Short Documentary (films between 15 and 40 minutes in length) was “Duguava Delta,” about life in community where the Daugava River flows into the Bay of Riga.
The winner of Best Feature Documentary (films over 40 minutes in length) was “Last of the Elephant Men,” about the indigenous Bunong people of Eastern Cambodia, whose forests and way of life are threatened by logging and mining companies. Jurors wrote that they were “struck by the film's sensitive exploration” of the relationship between the Bunong people and the elephants on which they depend.
The Best Mini Documentary and Best Short Documentary winners are eligible for Academy Award consideration.
Other indigenous stories featured at the festival:
“Blackfeet Art of the Northern Plains” (Eddie Roqueta, 4 minutes), which profiles Lauren Monroe Jr., who discusses the importance of preserving Blackfeet identity in a modern world and how he tries do so in his painting.
“Bisonhead” (Elizabeth Lo, 9 minutes), about a Pend Oreille, or Kalispel, family who journeys through Yellowstone to take part in a controversial wild bison hunt.
“The Good Mind” (Gwendolen Cates, 70 minutes), about the Onondaga Nation’s advocacy for the environment while engaged in a battle with the U.S. government over ancestral lands stolen in defiance of a treaty with George Washington.
“Maiden of Deception Pass: Guardian of Her Samish People” (Tracy Rector, Lou Karsen, 27 minutes) about a Samish woman who married a sea being to save her people from starvation.
“Urban Native” (Sheltah Chase, 11 minutes), which follows Native American teenagers as they navigate between traditional life and urban life.
“What Was Ours” (Mat Hames, 75 minutes), about a Shoshone elder, a powwow princess, and an Arapaho journalist who discover their true purpose on the Wind River Indian Reservation as they seek lost sacred objects, collected from their ancestors long ago and boxed away in vast underground archives.
“Yaya the Wise Man” (Ian Frank, 12 minutes), about a Kichwa father’s conviction to teach his son the ways of his culture.
‘We weren’t made to kill humans’
Twenty-eight Tlingit men from Hoonah went to Vietnam between 1961 and 1975, according to “Hunting in Wartime.” When they returned to Hoonah, they came back changed – and returned to a home that had changed as well. As they struggled to process the wartime horrors they experienced, they and other subsistence fishermen were confronted with declining salmon populations because of commercial overfishing and climate change, and state-imposed restrictions on fishing.
In the film, Tlingit veterans talk their pre-war ambitions. “When I grew up I wanted to be a hunter and a fisherman and I could do both,” one veteran said in the film. Another said, “I don’t think any of us thought we were going to be soldiers when we grew up.”
The veterans talk about the pain of taking human life. “We weren’t made to kill. We weren’t made to kill humans,” one veteran said in the film. “They are fishermen. They use nets like we use nets.”
Another recalled, “We used to admire these great, big, long jets with long wings and it had a cloud going behind all of them. We didn’t know it was Agent Orange.”
Veterans also talk about the lingering effects of the war. “The dreams were bad. The dreams were bad,” one veteran said.
And another: “When I was in Vietnam, I told myself if I ever make it out of here I’m going back home and I’m staying there until the day I die. We know that a big percentage of the guys took their own lives. And a lot of us climbed back out.”
The director wrote that her film is the story of “heroic survival.”
“Their stories confront the complexity of serving a country that systematically oppressed them starting with forbidding their own language,” she wrote. “We follow their heroic survival through racism, war, PTSD and addiction.”
Trailers for the films mentioned in this story – and, in some cases, the entire film – can be viewed on Vimeo. Go to Vimeo.com and type in the film name.