LISTEN: A documentary film followed Metlakatla’s winning high school hoopsters, then won an award of its own

A documentary film about the Metlakatla High School boys basketball team has won the audience choice award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.

The film festival was very different this year, due to the pandemic. Screenings were done at beach-side drive-in theaters, with movie-goers in their own vehicles.

It all sounds rather Californian, but the film is called “Alaskan Nets” and it’s directed by Jeff Harasimowicz.

Harasimowicz said he’s honored to be able to bring a slice of life from Metlakatla, Alaska’s only Indian reserve, to a wider audience. Harasimowicz describes “Alaskan Nets” as “‘Friday Night Lights’ meets Hoosiers,’” along with the unique perspective of a small Native fishing community.

Listen here:

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Jeff Harasimowicz: It’s charting this intersecting world of kids who are commercial fishermen but also basketball players, and carrying the hopes and dreams of their town, which is a massive basketball town. Most people don’t realize that, especially in the Lower 48. But basketball — it’s not religion, but it’s kind of close. In Alaska, it means a lot. It’s not just a game, it’s way, way more than that.

Casey Grove: What sort of stuff did you learn along the way?

JH: I mean, I kind of had an idea in my head of what I wanted the story to be. In a bubble, if I was a screenwriter writing this, what would I want it to be like? You would find really interesting characters who have deeply personal motivations to go do something, and then they go do it, they try, they fail, they try again, and they succeed. That was what I was wanting to have happen, and I kind of looked for something like that to happen.

But I think the level of pressure and the level of expectation was way, way more than I expected. I kind of expected it to be like, alright, well, you know basketball is really important. The town rallies around this team and whatever happens, happens.

Basketball means so much. And these kids have to do it. Like they have to, have to do it. The community will love them no matter what, but just — the pressure that started getting heaped on these kids! And then when tragedy strikes, multiple times during the course of the film. It’s now: You guys have to do it even more, because this is the only way they come back.

So the story didn’t really change that much from what I wanted it to be going into it, but the stakes and the pressure, and what was on the line, just got increased like a thousandfold during the course of actually making the film and telling the story.

CG: What did happen ultimately with the basketball team?

JH: This team in this town have been chasing a state title which had eluded them for 34 years and that was the mountaintop. That’s everything they wanted, and what generations of kids had been chasing and failing at. So, they went after it. And they went through a ridiculous amount of adversity, both on and off the court — much more so off the court, with what’s happening in their community, with the loss of life in fishing and commercial diving. And basketball just became that much more important to them. And these kids delivered.

They had so much on their shoulders. I think certainly if I was in high school, going through what they were going through, I would have crumbled. I’m sure most people would have crumbled. But there’s just a level of maturity, guts, but in a way they just didn’t focus on it, they were able to block it all out and just do what they needed to do in spite of everything going on around them. I don’t know too many kids who can do that.

I don’t know if that’s an Alaskan thing, where you kind of grow up and life’s a little harder. And I don’t mean that in a bad way: You’re just you’re exposed to things in Alaska that you really aren’t exposed to in many other places. It matures you faster than you might in other places, and you have a level of hardness you don’t see in a lot of places. So I think that helps these kids go the distance, and do what they had to do for themselves.

CG: When did you find out that you had won the Audience Choice Award?

JH: That’s kind of funny. You expect big moments in your life to be very big and very special and very weighty. Like, I remember when I found out we got into the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, which is a huge deal — I was feeding my five-month-old daughter mashed up food when I got the notification. It’s amazing news, which is kind of a funny way to get that news.

Then, you know, I was actually doing the recycling at our house — sorting bottles and cans when I got a call from the festival director. And he’s like, ‘Hey, just want to let you know that I have some good news for you. You won the festival, you won Audience Choice Award.’

So that’s not normal. Normally, there are actual closing awards, and it’s much more of a thing, but yeah — in the age of COVID, I’m making sure I get my bottles in one spot and my cans in another so the recycling man gets it right. Life in the age of COVID.

CG: Yeah, that’s funny. That’s something you can tell your daughter forever, right?

JH: Yeah, exactly. I was feeding you mashed avocado when I found out we were going to get a chance to show this to the world, and kind of start the process.

I also want to say, I owe so much thanks to the community of Metlakatla. So any time I can thank them for their hospitality, for their trust, and their love, for letting me and my team in to be a part of their community, to be a part of their world, and to tell their story — that really required a lot of trust. It would have been hard, and I’m sure at times, it was hard. But they were so amazing to us. Telling their story was the best experience of my professional life.

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