by Cheryl Heitman
Q & A with Joshua Branstetter & his daughter, Ellie…who likes to mention that she touched 500 year old dog poop
This is a conversation about filming Alaska documentary, Children of the Dig, the reasons Branstetter brought his daughter to a remote archaeology site, and how writing & producing documentaries helps him to reclaim his own identity.
At a 2017 dinner party in Anchorage, Alaskan filmmaker, Joshua Branstetter, met Estonian anthropologist, Anna Mossolova. While Mossolova was sharing her involvement with the excavation of Nunalleq, an amazingly well-preserved archaeological site in the remote Alaskan village of Quinhagak, Branstetter found himself drawn to a particular story detail. Since the dig’s inception in 2009, many of the children in Quinhagak who visited the site were now young adults working at the site.
“That’s the idea that really stuck with me, the kids who grew up with this historical landmark in their backyard,” said Branstetter.
The documentary film, Children of the Dig, debuted a year later at the opening of the Nunalleq Culture & Archaeology Center in Quinhagak. The full house included many audience members who had been part of the decade-long effort to understand the site and reveal its complicated stories.
“I saw how important this was to everyone there: the archaeology team, and the people of Quinhagak. That united vision, to save something beautiful, it’s overwhelming,” Branstetter said.
At what point during the interviewing and filming did you realize the story that needed to be told?
You always go into a shoot with the story you think you’re telling, then leave with another story that “is the story we’re really telling!” and then you get in the editing room and go, “This. This is the story we’re really telling.” I always knew I wanted to focus on the generation that had grown up alongside the dig, but I didn’t realize till I spoke with Mike Smith, the site manager, that the story was about looking beyond this generation. I went fishing with Mike, and he told me about how this wasn’t for him, but for his grandkids. He wanted the work they were doing to be passed on to future generations. I think that’s incredibly mature, and beautiful.
Describe how you chose the title of the documentary?
Oh, that was from my very first conversation with Anna. I was just on fire for this story, I pitched it to her right there [at the dinner party]. I was being a little tongue-in-cheek – and very emotive – and I think I said, “They’re not just the children that work at the dig, they are the children that grew up with the dig. They are… the children OF the dig.” Arms out like a real showman and everything. Then we laughed and I said, “I’m kidding, of course. I’d never actually name it that.” But I did.
You brought your own daughter to Quinhagak when filming, why? If you will, describe her experience in Quinhagak, what she remembers, and how the experience impacted her.
I think it’s important for the new generation to see how important it is to protect our culture, how important it is to protect our stories, and the story of Quinhagak and the Nunalleq project is a wonderful example of how those efforts can make a difference. People all over the world know about Quinhagak, and the work happening here. It’s inspiring. They also know how easily it could all be lost, because of the erosion. I wanted my daughter to see that firsthand, to see that this is real. Some of her classmates at school still don’t believe she came here. I keep having to send more photos from the site with her, whenever a new kid says, “Nuh uh, you did not touch 500-year-old dog poop.” She’s very adamant that she did. As for what she remembers, let’s ask her!
Josh: What did you think of the dig site?
Ellie: I was scared of the ancient dog poop but it was fine. It’s amazing how stuff lasted 500-years. It’s as old as Shakespeare, and it’s amazing that something that long ago is still there and you can see it.
Josh: Do you think the work they’re doing in Quinhagak is important?
Ellie: I think it’s great, keeping history is a great thing and we don’t want to lose our history, Children of the Dig showed a lot of that and it’s cool because it’s helping to do that. And that joke about that guy who looked like Santa Claus was funny!
Josh: What really stuck out to you about your trip to Quinhagak?
Ellie: I think it was amazing to see the artifacts, and John Smith made me the replica of the ivory owl and I love it. It’s great that we can see the artifacts, and the history, and that it gets to stay where it was found, in Quinhagak.
Josh: Did you have a favorite artifact that you saw?
Ellie: The ivory owl.
The documentary film has been shown in what cities and at what film festivals? Describe the recognition Children of the Dig has received.
The reception to the film has been overwhelming and heartwarming. We’ve played at the Anchorage International Film Festival, American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, The 25th Red Nation International Film Festival in Los Angeles, The Maryland International Film Festival. It was awarded Best Alaskan Film at the Alaska International Film Awards 2019. Groups outside of the festival circuit have reached out to us, as well: The Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, the Anchorage Museum, the AK Forum on the Environment, the Smithsonian’s Native Cinema Showcase, the Historic Properties Workshop for Oil Spill Response. The list goes on. It’s been a wide spectrum of interest for this story.
Most recently we were contacted by the Environmental Youth Conference in San Francisco, too, but due to the national lockdown that was unfortunately cancelled. I’m very honored by the interest, but I always point people back to Quinhagak, and the Nunalleq Project. It’s their story, they’re the ones in the trenches, trying to save everything they can. I’m just honored that I was able to film a small glimpse into that world.
Provide some childhood history about your growing up years that influenced and led you down the path of becoming a writer, director, and producer of films.
I remember when I was a kid in the 90s, they’d play The Great Escape (1963) probably every other week on TBS, and I’d take my dinner to my parents’ room to watch it. It was a WWII movie about the largest prisoner escape in history, and it was a true story! The escape was planned alongside D-day. I remember my dad telling me that my grandfather – who was at Normandy beach – probably would’ve died if not for those POWs, because the Germans redirected thousands of troops to find the POWs. So, for five-year-old me, I was thinking, “This movie is why I’m here.” Yeah, it’s silly, but! That was probably the first time I fell in love with a movie. REALLY fell in love with it. I watched it over and over again, knew every line, and then watched the behind the scenes. I knew how they did the stunts, how the iconic, claustrophobic tunnel escape was a set where they weren’t closed off at all. It was like an ant farm tunnel. That’s when I really started learning that filmmaking was a process. From there I made silly films with my friends in the Eagle River back woods, stupid war movies with lots of red Kool-Aid being used for fake blood. I was almost always the bad guy. That’s what happens when you’re the only minority in your circle. I remember being relieved when some other Asian kids showed up. “Now I can be the hero.” I thought. That’s the 2000s for ya.
Describe your other passions, and interests that may assist you in connecting with your professional life.
My wife, Rachelle, is an AMAZING photographer. Her work is really beautiful. Someone once told her it feels spiritual, and I completely agree. She started photography to connect with our kids, because she didn’t want to forget the little moments. I love that, and we do photography together. She’s taught me everything I know about it. Photography and filmmaking are very complimentary anyway, but it’s definitely helped. I just love stories. I watch everything I can: good and “bad”. I read constantly-especially comics. You can learn a lot about cinematography from comics. I mean, they’re basically storyboards. I play Dungeons and Dragons. I write constantly. All of that helps. But most of all I try to listen to people. If you want to tell good, authentic stories, nothing is more important than being attuned to people. Love people. Listening to people.
Do you view yourself as having childlike characteristics that assist you when bringing a story to life?
Yes. (I should have ONE quick answer) But yes! I think children just absorb EVERYTHING. They’re full of curiosity and wonder and a lust for life. As a filmmaker, you have to have that, too. If you’re cynical and think life sucks, people will feel that in your films. But, if you see the wonder in life, your viewers will too.
A lot of my documentary work are stories of people celebrating, preserving, or reclaiming their identity. I think that I’m drawn to stories about identity, because for a long time I wasn’t sure about my own. I’m half-Filipino, but growing up I’d try to hide my heritage. I didn’t think it was cool to be what I am. My heroes on TV were always tall, dashing, dirty blonde white guys. Most of my friends were white. Nobody looked like me and I didn’t want to look like me. Now that I’m older, and what I’ve learned from the amazing friends I’ve made along this journey, is it’s cool to be who you are. So, in a way, I think I’m drawn to stories about people discovering or rediscovering who they are, because I am, too.
But! I’m also a total goofball. My horror-comedy, Kevin, Dear, is still in festivals. We just finished another dark-comedy, Jazz Hands, and my TV comedy pilot script, The Pheasant’s Crusade 2, was just nominated as a semi-finalist at the Cinequest Screenplay Competition. I like all kinds of stories.
What advice do you have for young people when they are told stories, and when they tell stories?
Listen. Listen to everything you can, everyone you can. Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has an amazing, beautiful, powerful story in them, be receptive to it. That’ll help you on both ends. I think the best storytellers are those who listened best. One of my favorite filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki, says he’s just a very good thief. When he’s short on ideas, he goes to the park, and he just listens. The best storytellers are also the best listeners.
Anything else you would like your viewers to know about your experience making the documentary?
Go to lots of parties? At least, that’s worked out for me. Maybe that’s just a me thing. I don’t know! Care about people. Listen to people. Empathize with them. People are absolutely fascinating and beautiful, and I love hearing what they care about and caring about it, too! Listen to our elders! We have so much to learn from them, and you might not have tomorrow to do it. Do it today. I wish I’d listened to my grandparents more while I still had them. Listen to your elders.