The most inspiring film in this year’s collection of short documentaries by Santa Barbara filmmakers is certainly Leaving Alaska, in which director Michael Warner follows a small school of children from the middle of backwoods Alaska who take a life-changing trip to Santa Barbara, where we welcome them with open arms and, among other highlights, teach them to surf. It’s a great portrait of their homeland and ours, and a great look at the power of teachers and learning.
A UCSB grad from 1980 who worked at KEYT before starting his own company Pacific Sun Productions in Santa Barbara in 1991, Warner recently answered a few of my questions via email.
How were you turned onto this story?
An email landed in my inbox that was a solicitation for funds. It was sent to my wife by a friend of ours who was connected to the home-school group in Santa Barbara that provided meals and transportation and lodging for the kids. My wife, Ellie, forwarded it to me. The group form Alaska had decided to come to S.B. despite still being several thousand dollars short of the funds needed to make the trip. I read all they had done for the past three years in order to come here and I remember saying to myself, “How could I NOT help these kids come here?”
Originally we thought of helping by sending some money, but then I began to think like a filmmaker and wondered if exposure might prove to be more of a contribution, helping the group raise additional awareness and thereby additional funds. In the end they were able to raise all that they needed, and I do believe the exposure helped with that.
Beyond what’s in the film, what is life like up there?
It’s really hard to describe. I often tell people that every preconceived notion that I had of what life must be like in a remote native village like Stony River was wrong. There is a quiet, and a freshness in the air there like no place that I have ever experienced. It is incredibly beautiful and one cannot help feeling closer to the land and closer to each other in a place like this.
I have traveled quite a bit in my line of work, but I do remember getting off the tiny charter plane after flying for hours over mountain ranges and river valleys, hundreds of miles from the nearest paved roads, and feeling that this was like no place that I had ever experienced. We were immediately escorted to the school and seeing the facilities, the classrooms, the small gym, the kids working on laptop and desktop computers, I suddenly felt as if I could be in any small public school in any small town in America. The dichotomy was astonishing.
How did they pick Santa Barbara?
Santa Barbara resident Jeanne Rodkey, who spent several years in grade school in Stony River (her parents were among the first Christian missionaries who were allowed in the village), had started up a pen pal program between a home-school group of children here in Santa Barbara and the kids from Stony River. When Jeanne heard of the trouble that the kids were having raising enough money to go to D.C. and Florida, she suggested that the home school group could help them here in S.B. with lodging, meals, transportation, etc. And of course that is exactly what happened. The original itinerary would have cost nearly $60,000, but because of all the support from Jeanne and others here in S.B., they were able to make the trip for under $20,000.
Were you surprised/inspired by how much the Santa Barbara community welcomed these kids?
I was both surprised and inspired. It’s a wonderful feeling to come from a community that can recognize the needs of others, and is willing to get involved in helping make others dreams come true. I for one was incredibly touched by the way our community rallied around this group from Alaska, I know they were touched as well, and I think these kids have touched many here. My hope for the film is that it inspires others to believe that their own big dreams can come true; through hard work, belief, perseverance, and sometimes a little help from someone who cares.
Do you think that they were actually happier since their D.C. and DisneyWorld plans fell through?
No. I think they would still love to visit our nation’s capital, visit the Smithsonian museums, and see all that Florida has to offer. But I do think that they came here first for a reason. The people of Santa Barbara showed this group that there is a world out there that cares about others. Even if those others come from far away and are people whom they have never met. The community of Santa Barbara surrounded these kids with love and support in a way that I feel is truly unique.
Do you have more plans to cover these kids?
Yes. The group from Stony River is using the film I made to help them raise funds to take part two of their journey to Washington D.C. perhaps as early as this spring. I hope to raise funds also to be able to cover that part of this story. Also Brad Gusty will be graduating high school this year and is planning on attending SBCC and transfering to UCSB. I will certainly be filming him and his reactions to college life here in Santa Barbara. I also intend to follow the progress of Brad’s older brother, Robert, who is the eldest of six siblings and the first in his family to attend college
Leaving Alaska screens along with five other short docs by S.B. filmmakers on Tuesday, January 31, 2 p.m., at the Lobero Theater and again on Saturday, February 4, at the Metro 4.