Building Relationships Through Films - Interview with Uprivers Director Matthew Jackson

Jackson Matthew is the director of Uprivers, a documentary short about the transboundary mining issue surrounding the KSM mine in northwestern British Columbia. In this interview , he shares with us his motivations for making the documentary, his perspective on the issue, as well as his hopes for Uprivers moving forward. The film is set in Ketchikan and Williams Lake B.C., focusing on two women and their families on either side of the border.

Rachel Chew: What made you decide to make this documentary?
Jackson Matthew: I’d never studied filmmaking; I’d never been involved in filmmaking or anything similar before. I was just concerned about the integrity of the watershed and the sustainability of fisheries around Ketchikan where I’m from. I would like any mine that’s going to affect salmon runs or the wilderness in general to be thought about critically by society. So, the Pueblo Mine, Chuitna Mine, and other mines in Alaska have been on my radar. But those mines have an EPA process that we can go through, there’s lots of room for public comment on both state and local levels, there’s a lot of work being done around that. When I started hearing about these minds going in across the border from Ketchikan I went, “Oh shit, those are in Canada. All of that waste, all of the lead, cadmium, mercury, copper, acid, rock drainage, it’s all going to be flowing down river into Alaska and there’s not a thing I can do about it.” And that was just so frustrating that I just set off on a journey to find out what I could do about it and that’s how we ended up with Uprivers.

Rachel: How did you first find out about those mines across the border?
Jackson: I didn’t start this movement – I’m not a leader in this movement but I hope to be a messenger. I heard about it through the good work of organizations like Salmon Beyond Borders and the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council who had, very early on, identified this as a problem and started raising awareness of it. There was a film that came out the same year that I started the Uprivers project called XBoundary which was a really good and short run-down of the issue. Uprivers is kind of a complementary story to that, going in depth into characters and what it’s really like to live in these communities.

Rachel: Many of the scenes you shot were in a very familial environment, how did you get to know the people who were in your documentary?
Jackson: Luck, I was just really lucky. I was at a Salmon Beyond Borders event in Juneau where Jacinda, one of the main characters in the film, was speaking and this was right around the time when I was realizing that my story wasn’t really the story I wanted to tell. That there were other people with stories that were more important to share. Then, Jacinda walks on stage at this talk in Juneau and just blew my mind about changing the paradigm from one that’s defined by the mining companies and characterized by fighting against the mines into one that advocates for the land and takes the land as its centerpiece. Then I met at Carrie through the network of Southeast Alaskans who are working on this issue. She was a real leader in her community, somebody whose family was active in the subsistence lifestyle that is now at risk. She’s done a lot of amazing work uniting different tribes in Southeast Alaska and is also a voice on the national and international level for indigenous co-management of resources and the protection of Southeast Alaskan watersheds. It’s really been an honor to get to meet both of them.

Carrie and her family enjoying a meal together

Carrie and her family enjoying a meal together

Rachel: Was it difficult getting them to join you on this project?
Jackson: I was so anxious about asking these bad-ass activists and total strangers to get involved but they were both absolutely, incredibly, welcoming. Jacinda, except for that one evening in Juneau, had never met me before and had never met any of my camera crew. Yet, totally out of the blue, maybe based on a dozen emails, invited us into her home in Williams Lake and invited us to her small family birthday party. She’s blowing out her birthday candles and there’s a total stranger with a big shoulder cam filming the whole thing. We were just blown away by the hospitality and friendliness of Jacinda and Carrie.

Rachel: Uprivers hints a little to the argument on the other side of the fence, about the mine’s provision of jobs for people, what do you think about this issue?
Jackson: We all know that jobs are important, that’s how people survive in a modern capitalist society. However, we really have to look at the long term effects. People have been fishing salmon for perhaps ten thousand years in Southeast Alaska. But those stocks are starting to diminish. Dams and other watersheds far away contribute to this. But the wild, free, pristine, waters of Alaska continue to sustain salmon runs and could continue to do so forever. None of these mines are going to last forever. Each mine will provide 50 years of jobs at best. But the pollution they will bring to the rivers is forever. We’re talking about a scale of 10,000 years. These mines will continue leaching long after the jobs are gone. Yeah I value jobs, I value jobs a lot! Based on this documentary, people might think that I’m an anti-mine, job-hating, tree-hugger but my day job with the Youth Advocates of Sitka is actually helping youths find jobs. I’m all about economic development, as long as it’s sustainable and wise. I know 3rd, 4th, 10th, and a hundredth generation fisherman – when you start talking about indigenous folks in Southeast Alaska, these people have been fishermen since time immemorial. Every generation. Dozens and dozens of fishermen. I value these jobs a lot. 50 years of mining jobs that are going to leave workers unemployed and cancer-striken at the end? I don’t know if those are worth it. Maybe it’s possible to do mines right but it certainly it cannot be done in a way that threatens sustainable salmon economies.

Canned Salmon

Canned Salmon

 Rachel: Would you say that the film’s present form is significantly different from how you initially conceived of it?
Jackson: A 180 degrees. The initial idea was for myself, and maybe a few friends, to travel up the Unuk River where the KSM mine was going to be. The KSM mine is the jewel on the crown of this British Columbia (BC) mining bloom that’s going on in the transboundary wilderness right now. The Unuk River is the river that flows down towards Ketchikan. We were going to journey up that with cameras, it was going to be a big adventure! However, after several months of learning more about the issue and doing some self reflection, we realized that there are actually some amazing stories waiting to be told, initiating the search for people like Carrie and Jacinda.

 Rachel: What made you change your mind?
Jackson: I have not made this film alone. I’m not the mastermind director behind this. This has been a very collaborative effort and I got a lot of input from Ellen Frankenstein, who’s a really successful grassroots documentary filmmaker based in Sitka. I also had a really close partner Zack Desmond who helped me from the initial stages through to finishing the production period of the film, really envisioning what it was going to be about. That along with some self reflection about the kind of media that was already being put out really led me to a place where I knew the film needed to be of somebody else’s story. Particularly an indigenous story. We realized that quite early on. And then we met Jacinda and Carrie it was just sold, where we thought, “These are the people that we are supposed to be talking about.”

Rachel: And who do you want Uprivers to be talking to? Who do you see as your audience?
Jackson: There are layers to the audiences that we hope to reach. I think folks who empathize with indigenous issues are going to click with this instantly. I think people who care about the environment are going to click with this instantly. Even people who care about salmon and fish. And to use a big hashtag from this year, there are a lot of parallels with the Dakota Access Pipeline and Standing Rock Movement. Those are the easy audiences. However, because we focus not on the issue but on the people who are affected by this issue, I believe we have a wider audience of people who just like good stories of people, and who are drawn to strong characters. Hence, I think we can reach farther than the traditional environmental documentary. I also think that there’s a funny twist on some rhetoric that I don’t necessarily agree with – with the new administration there’s this build the wall mentality, this notion of protectionism and ‘America First’. I have a lot of serious misgivings about that and the way it’s utilized but I’d be interested to see what that audience thinks of Canadian mines pumping millions of tons of mine waste across the border. I’d like to see where President Trump’s opinion is on that border.  

Fraser River in British Columbia

Fraser River in British Columbia

Rachel: What kind of impact do you hope your film will have through these audiences?
Jackson: The impact is going to be two-fold – we have a really specific policy goal, which is to implement an International Joint Commission (IJC) to oversee the transboundary watersheds. That’s technical and boring but also really important. The IJC process has existed since 1909 and was initially created to regulate shared watersheds like the Great Lakes, specifically Niagara Falls. It is a century old treaty and has been used as a model for international cooperation around the world but it is not being applied to the Alaska-BC transboundary region. There’s IJC oversight on watersheds all across the US-Canada border from Maine all the way to Washington state. The whole length of the continent is managed by IJC process but not the Alaska-BC region. And in order to activate that region, per se, takes agreement by the federal governments of both countries. So, it’s not like Alaska can just decide to create an IJC with BC, we must have the feds of both governments agree to do this at the federal level. And to get there we need to raise this story to a national spotlight so more support and more pressure is placed on public officials. As important as Alaska is to the nation’s economy, as critical as these fisheries are to the country’s food system, at the end of the day only 70,000 people live in Southeast Alaska. So, unless we can leverage the story and communicate the international importance of these watersheds and these landscapes, no one’s going to care. So, those are the goals of Uprivers.

Rachel: How do you feel about the film’s chances of doing that?
Jackson: I think they’re really good.. We are currently building relationships with organizations that already have networks, that have had success using film as a tool for advocacy. We’d like to see the film not as a standalone piece of media that everyone in the country will watch on Netflix but rather as a tool for community entities to tell a story about this region in a coordinated effort that puts pressure on public officials. I think the movie has the potential to be used as that tool and when we start getting it used that way it will be successful.

Amaya and Christine, characters in Uprivers

Amaya and Christine, characters in Uprivers

Rachel: Thank you so much! Is there anything else you would like to add to this interview?
Jackson: There are just some things I would like to say to my alma mater, Sterling College, to Patagonia, and to anyone who’s out there. I think Sterling prepared me for this kind of project by teaching me how to see through both an environmental lens and a holistic one. It has helped me understand these indigenous communities and indigenous struggles around mining. When you look with a Sterling perspective at the whole landscape and the long-term effects, the long-term relationships that people have with the world, you’re already one step towards seeing things from the indigenous perspective. I think that’s the perspective that people must look at salmon from if these salmon are to survive, if these landscapes are going to remain whole and intact. Sterling really has had a huge influence on this film and on me.

Uprivers could never have continued forward without support from a grant given by Patagonia’s World Travel Initiative. Without it, it might have been me on an iPhone blogging a little but it wouldn’t have been the full-scale production that it is now. It would not be as sharp of a media tool as it is becoming without that support. I’ve always appreciated their commitment to the environment and how they model what sustainable and appropriate job development should be like. They are a very successful corporation that is financially sustainable, ecologically sustainable, and treats their workers on the supply line right. I can tell you that a company like that would not be sourcing anything from mines like what we’re seeing in British Columbia right now.

 Finally, Uprivers’ strategy relies so much on community activists and organization. It is an intentional one in this day and age where there is so much background noise in media and one has to fight to be seen on platforms like YouTube and Netflix. In such a landscape, the personal connections and life stories are so much more impactful. And that’s really the way to stand out from the crowd in this age. So, if you have an organization that can be a part of sharing this story, that cares about clean water, sustainable economies, indigenous rights, please reach out to us because we want to talk about how we can make this tool available for you, so you can share the story with your followers, so we can all build those kinds of relationships.

Rachel Chew is summer intern with Artchange Inc. and a rising Sophomore at Yale University majoring in Cultural Anthropology and potentially History. She cares about stories and people, and is excited to explore how film, a medium she sees as particularly accessible in this age, can carry these stories and build connections around our world.