At the end of 2015, the news hit that I Am Yup’Ik, a documentary short about a 16-year-old boy who travels across the snowy isolated tundra to compete in an all Yup’ik basketball tournament in order to bring pride to his village, made it into Sundance. Come January, the festival audiences cheered and cried their way through it, ESPN bought it for their acclaimed 30 For 30 series, and this Friday you can see it on your TV during the Sportscenter 6pm hour (or watch it online here).
So, aside from the obvious reason of BYT’s well documented love for a good sports underdog story, why do we care?
Because I Am Yup’Ik got made by some talented, cool Washington, DC residents. Directed by Nathan Golon and Daniele Anastasion, and produced by Patrick White of GoodFight Media, the story of the making of the doc is also a story of great filmmaking and storytelling right here in DC. (Not to mention that Patrick is a founding member of BYT’s all time favorite DJ collective Fatback (RIP) and a FotoWeek FotoTalks alum)
As their national broadcast premiere approaches, we caught up with the team to get some behind the scenes scoop (& help them celebrate). Read on below:
BYT: What made you choose THIS story vs any other for the topic? How did you learn about the community, found your star etc?
Nathan Golon, Director: When our producer, Patrick White, was a teenager he worked in Alaska during the summers on commercial fishing boats. This was in a very remote area called the Kuskokwim delta and it’s populated by tiny villages (200-700 people). By working along side native Alaskans he got to know the Yup’ik people pretty well and discovered that they are obsessed with high school basketball. It’s comparable to football in rural Texas. It’s just an amazing story and for the next 15 years he sat on it until he found the time and resources to make our film.
Daniele Anastasion, Director: Ultimately, we knew the narrative would have to be driven by one strong character, so Patrick sent us out early to cast for the film at a qualifying tournament. During casting, we met Byron Nicholai and knew we’d found our star. In addition to being a great basketball player, he’s also a really talented Yup’ik singer. Byron is so connected to his Yup’ik identity and was able to speak about it with a wisdom beyond his years.
BYT: How did the basketball team form?
Nathan Golon: These are highschool basketball teams so they’re formed like any team in the lower 48 would be put together. However, in these tiny communities, a boy’s basketball team might represent 70 percent of the school’s male population and the opportunity to represent your village in the district tournament is a huge honor, so tryouts are intense.
BYT: Louis CK just made that Academy Awards joke about documentary shorts and there being virtually no funding for it…. how DOES one fund a documentary short about an Alaska Native basketball player?
Patrick White, Producer: We run a production company called GoodFight Media here in DC and we do a lot of documentary work for TV networks, ad agencies and NGOs. We always set aside a small amount of our revenue to finance story development for passion projects and after a year we’d set aside just enough to get out to Alaska to shoot principle photography. We took that footage to rough-cut and showed it to ESPN Films who loved it and they agreed to fund post-production.
BYT: Tell us a little about the shoot – how long did it take, any fun or scary anecdotes?
Daniele Anastasion: It took us about three weeks to shoot. The film takes place in Toksook Bay, Alaska, a village of about 600 people on the edge of the Bering Sea. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. In order to get there, you have to fly in tiny Cessna 6-seater planes for a hundred miles across frozen tundra. I’m a terrible flyer and these planes have engines that sound like lawn mowers. So this was not something I was looking forward to and I told Nathan that I wouldn’t fly in bad weather. On the morning of the tournament, we’re in Toksook Bay and a blizzard rolls in. The team has already flown out to the tournament in Bethel, but now the pilots are saying the conditions are too dangerous to fly. One airline decides to fly in. If we don’t get on that flight, we’d be stuck in the village and would miss the tournament. So we white-knuckled it all the way there. I was a mess on that flight.
BYT: You live and filmmake in DC, do you ever feel that the location makes the experience different than if you lived somewhere else?
Patrick White: Like a lot of creatives that live DC there’s a constant pressure to move to a bigger market, but DC has a small and incredibly supportive community. We know that we’re not New York or L.A. but that means that there’s a tremendous opportunity to establish our own voice in DC and create a scene that’s our own.
BYT: What is one thing that you wish someone told you before you dove into this process?
Nathan Golon: We were consistently surprised by how willing companies were to support us in the production process. From local airlines who gave us free airfare, to post-production houses who gave us great rates, the world is so much more supportive of indie filmmakers that we expected. There are people out there who want to help.
BYT: What does it feel like to be selected to show at Sundance?
Daniele Anastasion: Awesome! It’s a really fun phone call to get. I texted the news to Nathan while he was on a shoot in Haiti. He was so excited that he ran out of his hotel room and accidentally locked himself out. Patrick looked like this:
BYT: And, in turn, what was your Sundance experience like?
Daniele Anastasion: I was at Sundance in 2011 with a feature documentary called “The Redemption of General Butt Naked.” The film was about a Liberian warlord, so it was quite dark and unsettling, and the screenings were intense.
Returning with “I Am Yup’ik” felt like a very different experience. It’s a feel-good and cathartic film that had some audiences cheering. We brought Byron and his coach Simeon Lincoln out to Park City, and they got a lot of love during the Q&As after the screenings. It was so much fun to share Sundance with them.
BYT: What was your star’s reaction and the Yup’ik community reaction when they saw the film?
Nathan Golon: At the end of the Sundance premiere, Byron and Simeon were wiping away tears. We had shown the film to them beforehand, so it was rewarding to see that they were still moved by it.
We also shared the film in advance with a handful of people we’d filmed with in the Yup’ik community and the reactions were all really positive. That’s important to us.
BYT: How did the ESPN distribution come about?
Daniele Anastasion: We cut together a teaser after we returned from our shoot in Alaska and we showed it to Libby Geist and Shaun Alperin at ESPN Films, who were very enthusiastic. Soon after, they agreed to help us get the film to the finish line. It was a dream to work with the 30 for 30 team and we’re thrilled to have found a home for it with them.
Patrick White: I’m not a sports fan at all and I can say with solid conviction that the EP’s at ESPN Films have been the most creatively supportive executives I’ve ever worked with and I think you see the result of that collaborative spirit in the films they produce.
BYT: What is NEXT for Goodfight media?
We’re in production now on another series for ESPN, but generally we’re going to continue to make movies we love and work with our friends and wave the DC flag whenever we can.