A Story Worth Telling - Interview with JD Schuyler on Last Man Fishing

J.D. Schuyler is the producer and director of Last Man Fishing, a feature-length documentary film about small-scale fishing and fishery policy that is currently in the concluding stages of production. In this interview with JD, we explore how he became a documentary filmmaker, how he got involved in the conversation surrounding Last Man Fishing, and his hopes for the film after it is completed.

Rachel Chew: Why did you decide to make Last Man Fishing?
JD Schuyler: It all really started 10 years ago when I started in video as a person coming out of college and realized that I wanted to use video for something valuable. I got into sustainable food videos kind of off to the side and worked in that area for a long time which allowed me to get connected with Sitka Salmon Shares in Sitka, Alaska. They are all about sustainable fishing and supporting the small-scale fishermen – it was through them that I realized my passion. They were the ones who pitched the idea of a documentary about the struggle of small-scale fishermen and what they mean to the coastal communities that rely on them.  I’m from the Midwest and I knew sustainable, local food – I knew that story and those values but seafood was new to me and I can’t say that I was fully qualified for it but I was passionate about the idea. They gave us a grant to get started and I thought, “This is a story worth telling”. We have been at it now for two and a half years. Following three characters. We have one character in New England that we’re intimately following and two fishermen in Alaska, each finding new ways to sell their fish direct to consumers, and trying to change the seafood industry.

Rachel: What was the process of getting to know the people in your documentary like?
JD: It took awhile to make the right connections. It took a lot of emails, a lot of asking around, a lot of referrals. Fishermen are a little skeptical and cynical at times. So, I really had to make connections and be really transparent with people to win them over. I did not foresee the amount of time needed to build these relationships but now I get random calls from fishermen who just want to talk about how they’re doing.

Rachel: Do you think that changed your filming process?
JD: My background was in marketing and there people are in your favor – everybody rallies behind you and wants to see you do a good job. With documentary, people are skeptical. A lot of this stuff is super personal and you’re asking people to be vulnerable. It sounds clichéd but you really have to build a relationship before you can get the support from your characters who will give you the personal insights that you are looking for as a filmmaker.

Rachel: How did you move from marketing to documentary filmmaking?
JD:I don’t know if there’s a clear path [laughter]. Marketing allowed me to pick up on the technical aspects but being in documentary you have to have a real passion for it. From my experience, everything about it is difficult. And without that passion and drive you’d be really discouraged. Marketing and documentary don’t really correlate too well even if the actual medium might be the same.

Rachel: So what draws you to documentary filmmaking?
JD: I’m always looking to be educated and informed and I feel like documentaries are a way for me to get a snapshot of someone’s life, an industry, or a social issue. I’m heavily influenced by the documentaries I watch. From a young age I thought documentaries were really powerful, and I think that’s what drew me to them – being able to be a part of something that can open people’s eyes and hopefully educate them for the better.

 JD shooting on the set of  Last Man Fishing

JD shooting on the set of Last Man Fishing

Rachel: How important do you think documentary is as a medium for the message of Last Man Fishing?
JD: I think documentary as a medium is a perfect for this topic. The topic is pretty dense because it’s weighted down with a lot of policy and there’s a lot of geographic disparity in the conversation about fisheries. But you need to see characters in action and get a feel for who they are to understand it. I think this documentary provides the space and medium for that. It might be dry to read a book about fisheries but if you can see the fishermen’s struggles, it’s a good way to get the story across.

Rachel: You mentioned that you have worked on this film for over two years – do you feel like what you wanted to achieve with it has changed throughout that time?
JD: [laughter] I have been told that the documentary you set out to make will not be the one that you actually produce. This one specifically has changed dramatically. I definitely thought about it as a black and white issue initially but there’s a lot more gray, it’s a lot more complicated. I’m trying to navigate all the political dynamics of it to create a concise, comprehensive, story that people can connect with.

Rachel: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learnt through that process of discovery?
JD: I had no idea what catch share programs were and I don’t think very many people do but it’s a form of management that’s, in theory, really good for managing a fishery. It allocates a specific amount of fish to the fisherman and it has a lot of perks. However, through creating these programs to manage a fishery, ocean fishing rights are privatized. I was honestly kind of blown away by that because it changes the way fisheries will look for future generations. It’s pretty dramatic to take a national resource that everybody collectively owns and divvy it up into shares, giving it to fishermen in perpetuity. It’s super complicated but it blew my mind in terms of what it means for the industry in the long term.

Rachel: What kind of impact do you hope Last Man Fishing will have?
JD: I really want Last Man Fishing to connect to your average consumer. Coming from the Midwest I know people don’t always connect with seafood. I hope Last Man Fishing is an introduction to seafood and provides insight on where their seafood comes from. I really want the characters to be expressed in a way that people personally connect with them and can understand the political dynamics of the fishing industry. For instance, our fisherman in New England, Tim Ryder, he’s a father of a four year old, and two years ago when I met him he was upgrading to a new boat. He’s an example of a character, and a father, who has developed through production. I hope people connect with him and then also see his struggle as a fisherman trying to make money and navigate a very complicated, almost dysfunctional, management structure. Hopefully this documentary opens people’s eyes to the seafood industry and empowers them to be more informed consumers. We’re all consumers, we have this opportunity to have a say in what these small coastal communities will look like in the years to come.

Rachel Chew is a 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.

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.

Creative Capital Interviews Artchange Director


By Hillary Bonhomme   |   July 17, 2017 A Repost from Creative Capital 

Creative Capital is exploring the lives and practices of artists based in Alaska. Following a partnership with the Rasmuson Foundation, Creative Capital brought artists in the state its core of professional development courses. We’ve reached out to a few of the people who took Creative Capital professional development through Rasmuson. Now we hear from filmmaker, Ellen Frankenstein, who shared with us how cooking a piece of salmon properly involves many of the same principles as a sustainable art practice. 

Ellen Frankenstein: I admit, I let the King salmon, in the smokehouse about fifteen feet from my backyard studio, get overdone a few days ago. Also, close-by: a chicken coop, hand built out of local wood, with six Araucana hens who never hesitate to announce when they’ve laid an egg and several garden beds crowded by salmon berry bushes and filled with kale, peas and potatoes. I was editing and writing and forgot to check the smokehouse.

Ellen Frankenstein and Spencer Severson, from the film, “Eating Alaska.”

Hillary Bonhomme: What’s the short story of what you’re working on now?

Ellen: I’m currently working on a project, called 14 Miles: Dispatches from an Island in Alaska. It is set within a time and place and a quest to think about what is normal in a time that feels, for lack of better words, “off-kilter.” A local archivist, now ninety-two years old, warns me that I can’t create a framework that comprehends the present because what is happening now is not history yet. Nevertheless, I’ve been collecting scenes including one with students in a U.S. Government Class studying the executive branch, as they always do, and writing President Trump letters, which they’ve never done. There’s a local pharmacist changing the store front window display from winter to spring, sharing her concerns over the troubled local economy, stopping to chat with a local passerby. Then there is the new family marijuana business run by a Tlingit ex-law enforcement agent. If 14 Miles resonates as a whole, these chapters, with serious and wry moments, will come together to create a sense of place and how it connects, and doesn’t, to the world beyond.

Hillary: What brought you to Alaska? Was location deeply embedded into your work?

Ellen: I came to Sitka, a town of about 8,800 on an island in the panhandle of Alaska, from Los Angeles. to collaborate on a documentary film. One thing, as the cliché resonates, led to another. Eventually, even the piles 16 x 24” black and white prints, boxes of three-quarter inch tapes and outtakes from film projects from a storage locker on Hollywood and Vine joined me. Also, just after the fog lifted and a brown bear walked away from a hill 45 minutes by boat out of town, I married my hippy conservationist Sitka based commercial fishing husband.

Regardless of location, I have always been bent towards social issues.  The environment here, so different from what I’d experienced before landing here, underlies work, play and daily life. This place is more beautiful than the postcards can make it, with misty clouds ringing the mountains, eagles circling and whales bubble feeding when the herring return in the spring, and towering old growth spruce, hemlock and yellow cedar trees.

It is also a place where I know that one way to get kids talking when I’m working as a visiting artist in the schools around Alaska, is to ask for stories of getting stuck or stranded. Living on an island in a state that covers a lot of geographies, with a relatively small population, has allowed me to work with people over time. The environment, the arts, the indigenous community, are intertwined here and that too has shaped me, my relationships and my work.

Tracing Roots: Delores Churchill–A Weaver’s Journey Trailer from Artchange, Inc. on Vimeo.

Hillary: What’s been a challenge you’ve faced in Alaska, that you imagine many working artists have to overcome?

Ellen: Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about isolation. Even with all the beauty, it’s challenging at times to be here. After all, this is an island. You have to take a plane or boat to get here. The arts scene, from some angles, can seem safe and not strong on pushing boundaries. Meanwhile, since the pulp mill closed the town in the mid 90’s, Sitka has been gentrifying. It’s become a lot less blue collar than it once was, including a flow of interns, fellows and young college educated energy. It is fun to see the newer generations discover the place and to witness new things happen, but also troubling to see locals not being able to afford to live here.

I’m thankful to the Rasmuson Foundation for supporting and recognizing the work of individual artists in Alaska and for partnering with Creative Capital. I was excited to attend the professional development workshop and also look forward to diving into the online courses. For one it was a joy to sit at the table with such a powerful group of artists from around the state, including Earl Atchak, a Yupik Mask maker, Erin Hollowell, a non-native poet working on her third collection of poetry and Itzel Yarger-Zagal, a bilingual poet, focusing on her experiences emigrating from Mexico and the stories of other migrants in Anchorage. I came away from the workshop with a heightened perspective on what it means to be a sustainable artist, to sustain yourself and do your work.

My handwritten scrawls from the workshop include these words from Beverly McIver: “Voices steal joy…continue to do work…reach back. Don’t assume want to be at the top of things.” And this from Colleen Keegan: “take chaos out of what is not creative…. who do you really want to work with going forward?” There were specific pointers and lessons on productivity, fundraising and business plans that I will make use of for both my own projects and projects that partner with, Artchange, Inc., the small nonprofit I direct. I wanted to end on my own self-plea to say “No.” I’ve spent many of the last years jumping at opportunities, be it a collaboration with a nonprofit, a free-lance gig or an invitation to screen a film. I’m ready to do less and do it more intentionally. Then maybe the next batch of salmon won’t be so dry and chewy,

Ellen Frankenstein hosting “Sitka Tells Tales:” a local live storytelling series.
Photo courtesy of the Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson

Click here to learn more about Creative Capital’s upcoming online courses for professional development for artists. To read more about Rasmuson Foundation, click here

Ellen Frankenstein is an independent filmmaker and media artist. She directs the non-profit, Artchange, Inc. Frankenstein’s films include: Tracing Roots, Eating Alaska, No Loitering and Carved from the Heart. She distributes these documentaries with the New Day Film, a filmmaker run distribution company, providing social issue media to educate and inspire.

Hillary Bonhomme
Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, Hillary Bonhomme moved to New York City for an internship with Americans for the Arts and New York Public Radio in fulfillment of her studies as a music business major at the University of Louisiana. After graduating in the Spring of 2016, she stayed in New York City to pursue interests in arts administration and creative content creation. In addition to Hillary's administrative experience, she has experience as a performer. She was recently in the world premiere of David Lang's "The Public Domain" as part of Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival. She currently splits her time between Creative Capital and WNYC/WQXR as an assistant producer.

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Over 80 Rural Alaskans Gather to Comment on Senate Health Care Bill 













SITKA, AK-- A group of citizens in the island town of Sitka held a town hall meeting on Friday July 7, 2017 to discuss the the Senate Health Care Bill and its impact on Alaskan communities. Over 80 people attended the gathering at the local clan house/community event space, Sheet'ká Ḵwáan Naa Kahídi. Attendees included health care providers from Sitka Community Hospital and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (SEARHC), elders, non-profit directors, teachers, fishermen, and small business owners. Neither Senator Lisa Murkowski nor Senator Dan Sullivan attended, but both sent statements that were read aloud. 

VIDEO: Excerpts from the town hall

After an introduction from the local Affordable Care Act (ACA) enrollment coordinator about the benefits and challenges of the ACA and what would change under the new proposed Senate bill, citizens stood up and shared their experiences and concerns with health care and insurance coverage in Alaska. This included comment from Sitka Community Hospital administrator Rob Allen on the positive impact of the ACA and Medicaid expansion, and testimony from Dr. Robert Hunter who shared how the ACA had allowed many Sitkans to receive treatment for substance abuse. “We need more help, not less help,” he said.


State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins also spoke about the state government’s role in expanding coverage and how many of his rural constituents depend on the ACA. After the Town Hall, residents gathered to record video messages to send to Senator Murkowski and Senator Sullivan, and to write postcards to the senators voicing their concerns. 

 State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins Photos: Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson

State Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins
Photos: Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson