Young filmmaker hopes to capture the spirituality of Orthodox Natives in the North

Dmitry Trakovsky wasn’t quite sure what he’d seen when he visited Alaska last August. The 26-year-old moviemaker from California had gotten on the art film map with his first feature documentary, “Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky,” which premiered at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2009.

Now he had a not-particularly-defined notion of connecting his Russian heritage and the poetic sensibility of the late Glenn Gould’s Canadian radio documentary, “The Idea of North,” sometimes described as an “oral tone poem.”

“I thought, Why don’t I go up north?” Trakovsky recalled. “I’m Russian. It’s somewhere in my blood. I guess I was trying to go to Alaska to see if there was one indigenous person I could find who still spoke Russian.”

He found much more during the annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Herman on Spruce Island near Kodiak.

“A Yup’ik priest was being ordained. His family had come in from the village. It was a beautiful moment, very moving, a certain spirituality coming from within. I hadn’t seen that happen before,” he said.

The same priest asked Trakovsky to translate letters his grandfather had written in Russian. “It was an old form of the language, from the time of the Czars,” Trakovsky said.

Everywhere he turned, the Californian was stunned by “the collage of cultures.”

“Seeing elder Lucille Antowock-Davis dressed in her traditional Alutiiq clothes with the Orthodox cross as part of her identity was fascinating for me,” he said. “Seeing two cultures melding in a harmonious way. Even visiting the villages around Kodiak and hearing about their troubles and how the spiritual aspect of Orthodoxy relates to that. It was really unbelievable to me that you had this going on in American territory.”

He even found a few elders who did know some Russian, at least a few words or songs.

Trakovsky is now hoping to make a film about Russian Orthodoxy in Alaska, with the working title of “Arctic Cross.” An online version titled “Journey into Orthodox Alaska,” intended as a promotional video to help raise funds for the project, includes footage taken during the pilgrimage. But he doubts that much of it will make it into the final cut. His trip to Kodiak made him realize that he will need to head farther off the Marine Highway system and into the Bush.

Mike Dunham

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