14 Miles: Dispatches from an Island in Alaska
After the 2016 presidential election, there was a lot of discussion about how polarized this country is and how social media helps reinforce echo chambers, feeding those divisions. That led us to create 14 Miles: Dispatches from an Island in Alaska, a documentary project set in Sitka, as a local response. It is an effort to draw people into discussion of relevant challenges, shared values, and common goals and to in a small way, simply “hijack” the social media feed with these stories and what they might generate.
While the distance in Sitka from one end of town to the other is not long, we felt the potential to engage people in creating a series of micro-documentaries about place and identity is abundant. We’re creating two- to four-minute films, releasing up to two episodes a month, via social media, broadcast, and placement on websites. In addition to online discourse, 14 Miles includes live use and public gatherings.
We posted the first episode last fall on Facebook, both on the 14 Miles page and on “Sitka Chatters,” a place where locals and ex-locals post everything from photos of sunsets to sometimes heated words around issues of rising utility rates and the senior tax exemption. It was a vulnerable moment, a laying out of cards. It was different than spending years on a 30 or 60 minute film and unveiling it at a community event, a museum, or film festival. Live screenings with hundreds of people in the audience are intimating too, but they are also controlled, almost boxed in, so to speak. It is one DVD or digital file projecting across a room, with an end time. The lights will go on; there is a Q and A; and the audience leaves. This was a contrast, in part because our strategy and hope is that stories will be shared, embedded, and travel out of our reach.
The response surprised us. According to Facebook stats now, there have been over 32,000 views and over 500 shares of The Beginning. The first episode has a fun premise, as we set out to see if it is truly 14 miles of road from one end of town to the other, mixed in with serious questions about challenges here. We know that not everyone in town is a Facebook or social media user but, nevertheless, in the grocery store, at the auto repair shop, and on the street, locals approach us to comment, to say they’re watching, to ask about the next episodes, and to continue the conversations the stories start. Part of the response includes invitations to collaborate and episode ideas—and we’re responding back, so the project, as we also wished, will keep evolving.
We’ve shared a total of 12 episodes so far, from Behind the Curtain, exploring preparations for the local Nutcracker to Karla's Story, focusing on a teenager with a strong spirit and a story of recovery she was willing to share. We’re currently at work on an episode made with 4th and 5th graders, as they try their hands at interviewing community members as part of an Artist in the Schools Residency about documentary storytelling. And we’ve got other projects in the queue, from a portrait of the “White E,” the local thrift store; to stories about the cost of living and making ends meet. When it feels like there is so much to say and not enough time to produce and edit episodes, it’s time to think about this as a challenge to creatively and collaboratively tell some stories of this place, digging and uncovering what might get passed by, even in an island town with only 14 miles of road from one end to the other.
The results might be as simple as a woman who saw the first episode and said, "I've lived here 20 years and never thought about what I don't know about this place;” to deeper discussions of heritage, gentrification, or opioids and resource allocation. We also encourage students, filmmakers, or storytellers in different mediums to try a similar project in a neighborhood, village, or school.