Documentary looks at suicide among Alaska Natives

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) September 2012

“In a landscape as dramatic as its stories, Alaska Native people face staggering suicide rates, yet remain determined to heal and thrive.”

So begins the description of “We Breathe Again,” a documentary film in progress on, an Internet funding platform for creative projects.

“We Breathe Again,” Heartbreak & Hope in Alaska, is a collaboration between Gwanzhii LLC, the Indigenous Leadership Institute and Crawl Walk Run, whose principals form a tight-knit team that began filming more than a year ago in several locations around the state.

To date, the project has been funded with a lot of volunteer hours by numerous people and a couple of individual donors.

The group is seeking a project goal of $15,000 on to help finance another six months of filming to create a feature-length film for television and the theater.

Although Alaska has the highest suicide rate per capita in the nation, the film doesn’t focus on statistics but portrays real people who have suffered, struggled and overcome hardships.

A local Native couple, Evon and Enei Begaye Peter, and New York filmmaker Marsh Chamberlain, who has family connections in Alaska, fortuitously met via friends in 2010 and began collaborating on the project.

Chamberlain was moved to focus on suicide talking to an Inupiaq cousin who visited him on the East Coast in 2007.

“He lost two childhood friends to suicide, which dramatically impacted his community and his life, and he talked about wanting to make a difference,” Chamberlain said.

After meeting Evon, who has been working throughout Alaska with Native communities in suicide prevention, community wellness and healing, and developing young indigenous leaders, Chamberlain realized his life was changed.

“I feel really lucky to have met Evon, he’s a wonderful, inspiring person, and to have this wonderful, passionate and knowledgeable team together.

“Evon has opened the door for me. That has been the key to tell this story and make this film.”

Chamberlain says the spirit of the film is “grassroots ... creative collectives” defined by collaboration.

As co-producers, Evon and Enei’s insight, experience and talents bring focus and balance.

At 17, Evon said he was a product of generational abuse and a high school dropout in a downward spiral with drugs and alcohol, when he decided to turn his life around.

A year later, he was involved in leadership development as a college student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and made the decision “to be there with Native youth.”

Today, at 36, the Gwich’in Athabascan holds university degrees, was Arctic Village chief for three years, is a father and family man, and has kept his commitment to serve young people, through healing workshops and camps around the state.

The purpose of the film, Evon explained, “is to raise awareness, provide inspiration and information on how to work through hard times and heal, and learn how to live a good life and bring an end to the cycles of violence and abuse.”

The film will feature Alaska Natives telling their own stories in their own communities.

“There is so much power in storytelling,” Evon said. “When people feel they are in a safe environment, the stories come and the healing can begin.”

“The sad thing about suicide,” said Enei, who grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona, “is we don’t want to talk about it as a community or a family. We don’t want to think about it.”

The film team goes in-depth with their subjects to portray what life is really like.

“We want to break the cycles of abuse, especially child sexual abuse, alcoholism and historical trauma,” Evon said.

“We Breathe Again” will feature an inter-generational series of stories.

It’s about people who have chosen to do something with their lives, Evon said. “It’s heavy but inspiring at the same time.”

The film’s working title “We Breathe Again,” can be compared to struggling underwater before coming up and breathing again or symbolize “waking up ... and coming clear about what we are up against.”

To date, filming has been done in Elim, Nome, Anchorage, Fairbanks, the Copper River Valley area, Barrow and Kotzebue. Plans are to continue for another six months in various communities around the state.