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One With The Whale

Directed by Pete Chelkowski & Jim Wickens
Documentary Feature
United States | 80 min | 2023

The Apassingoks are a typical American family. They watch the NBA, have a dog named Blue, and are often glued to social media. They live on St. Lawrence, a tiny Alaskan island in the Bering Sea, with their son Chris, a shy teenager. But, unlike mainland kids, he must regularly cut school and head out in -20°F into the deadly waters to provide food for his family and his village. Because on this island, if you don’t hunt you die.

Chris is one of the last subsistence hunters of his generation, an ancient practice of providing food for the entire community, but a way of life which is becoming infinitely more difficult due to climate change. So, when Chris becomes the youngest person to ever harpoon a whale, the village is ecstatic. His proud mother posts photos of the hunt on social media to share with other Alaska Native communities. But, to their horror, instead of praise, this vulnerable kid receives thousands of hate messages and death threats from Paul Watson and his international army of environmental activists.

Emotionally distraught and struggling to graduate high school, Chris falls into a dangerous tailspin and looks to his family, especially his older sister Nalu, for help to counter these attacks. But Nalu faces her own challenges, she is secretly gay and must leave the island and its restrictive religious morality to find love and happiness.

ONE WITH THE WHALE unravels the multiple challenges that Chris, Nalu, and their family face. Caught in the crosshairs of climate change, food security, social media and centuries of racially motivated attacks from outsiders, the Apassingoks and their entire village are on the cusp of losing everything. That is, unless they can find a way to navigate these precarious times and strike a balance between being modern Americans and prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

For the Apassingok family, this is extremely personal. It’s a story about their family, their son, their daughter, their nephew and niece and the way in which attacks from animal rights activists almost destroyed him, their family, and their way of life, a culture that stretches back thousands of years.

For me, Jim Wickens, it’s intensely personal as well, but ironically, for totally different reasons. I am an environmental activist, who for the last two decades has been fighting around the globe to protect animal rights and fight against hunting wildlife. I created the first environmental investigation agency called Ecostorm. But in recent years, I’ve become deeply uncomfortable with the racist rhetoric that I feel is embedded within conservation narratives, whereby people of color who depend upon subsistence hunting practices are all too often demonized and blamed for the environmental problems of the world.

When I heard about the attacks on Chris by Paul Watson and his armchair activists, that was the final straw. It was time to act. I reached out to Susan Apassingok on the other side of the world, openly disclosing my activist past, and asked if we could meet and discuss making a film together. It took a while to build relationships and garner trust, but together with my partner Pete Chelkowski, we quickly became the unlikeliest of friends.

That was four years ago. This film for us is about reaching beyond polarization and across ideological divides to find better ways to listen and work together as human beings.

We also undertook a seismic shift in production protocol, working to phase out a hierarchical system for a more lateral one, where everyone’s voice counts. It is important to acknowledge that the narrative for the film is steered and ultimately decided by Native voices within or in close proximity to the village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island.

This is a film made by a community, determined to build Yupik cultural power and voice in northwest Alaska: a mix of Siberian Yupiks from St. Lawrence Island, an Alaska Native from the mainland, two Americans from the Lower 48, a Canadian and a Brit. We are Aakapak Apassingok and children Agra and Nalu Apassingok, Yaari Toole Walker, M. Watanabe Milmore, Pete Chelkowski, Jim Wickens, Dewey Hoffman, and Justine Nagan. It has been a collaborative effort, a joining of skills and talents. Pete Chelkowski and Jim Wickens were given the privileged invitation by the Apassingok family to act as directors on their story but since ultimately this has been a co-creation the final credits are still being determined. For now, we are saying Directed by Pete Chelkowski and Jim Wickens

One With The Whale - Poster

One With The Whale - Pete Chelkowski and Jim Wickens

Pete Chelkowski, Jim Wickens
Director

Jim Wickens, Director/Cinematographer
Over the last 15 years, Jim has established himself as one of the world’s leading activists and storytellers on the frontline of environmental conflicts. After working for Greenpeace, he started the world’s first undercover environmental detective agency. He has outstanding warrants in Japan for his anti-whaling work there, and criminal convictions in Namibia for exposing commercial seal hunts. At the same time, Jim also works closely with indigenous and coastal communities around the world fighting for recognition and land rights. His work has been regularly screened on Channel 4 news, Animal Planet, CNN and ITV. His raw and uncompromising style of storytelling has earned him numerous awards, including the Royal Television Society Independent Filmmaker of the Year; the International Foreign Press Award; the Wincott Foundation Award for Journalism; Amnesty International and One World media awards.

Pete Chelkowski
, Director/Cinematographer
Pete Chelkowski’s latest project, “Life Below Zero-First Alaskans,” airs on Nat Geo, the only non-fiction series with an all Native American cast. He was commissioned by TNT to shoot “Who Runs the World” for Sara Jessica Parker. He was a field producer and DP for Discovery’s “Ocean Warriors,” where he met co-director Jim Wickens. His first feature film was “Carnival Roots” which explored the clash between Europe and Africa through the lens of Carnival in Trinidad. He produced and created “Fighting Tuna” for Discovery. He was a producer of “I Learn America,” a documentary film about newly arrived immigrant teenagers in their senior year of high school. He regularly works undercover for Ecostorm.

Film Information

Director: Pete Chelkowski, Jim Wickens
Country: United States
Year: 2023
Language: English
Runtime: 80 min
Rated:  PG-13

Credits

Producer: Aakapak Susan Apassingok, Yaari Walker, Justine Nagan
Key CastL:  Agra Chris Apassingok, Nalu Danielle Apasingok

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