When Cory Mann returned to Southeast Alaska from San Diego, where his Tlingit mother had taken him as a little boy, he was at first frightened by the immense expanse of wilderness around him — not because he found it quiet and sparsely populated compared to the city, but because he knew it was the opposite.
“The whole world is alive (in Southeast),” Mann says in “Smokin’ Fish,” a new locally produced film in which he is the featured narrator. “In San Diego the only thing alive was the people.”
Mann describes moving in with his grandmother and learning Tlingit ways, eventually finding a place for himself within the landscape and the traditions of his mother’s family. His journey is the focus of “Smokin’ Fish,” a documentary created by Mann and Luke Griswold-Tergis. It premieres at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Gold Town Nickelodeon.
In tracing Mann’s path, the documentary explores his position at the intersection of two cultures. Mann, whose father was white, owns his own business, Stories and Legends, selling textiles and other items that feature Tlingit designs, often struggling to make ends meet. Many of the things he learned to do from his grandmother, such as smoking fish, don’t translate well as money-making enterprises — Mann comments in the film that he would never sell the fish he works so hard to produce in the smokehouse.
But that doesn’t mean he wants to quit doing it. Every season he carves out time for smoking fish, slowing down to align himself with the tasks of catching, preparing and smoking the fish, activities that, for Mann, honor his grandmother and great-grandmother’s teachings, from respecting the dead fish by hanging it properly, to learning how to trade the finished product with others. In pursuing this labor-intensive tradition, Mann puts aside the demands of his business, often endangering his prospects in the process.
The uneasy balance between traditional and modern is undoubtedly one of the engines that drives the story forward (he describes this position as having one foot on land and one on a moving boat), but the real energy of the film comes from its focus on the personal, bringing this iconic, large-scale struggle down to the dense, fascinating kernel of one man’s unique experience.
The family members that contribute to the film – Aunts Sally Burattin and Helen Watkins among them – fill out the tale with their own personal narratives, providing the framework within which Mann’s story unfolds. Burattin makes for a particularly riveting narrator, telling stories about her childhood in which humor and sorrow are so finely woven together they are nearly inseparable.
The film also includes interviews with Tlingit elders such as Marie Olson and Walter Soboleff, broadening the historical aspects of the narrative even further, and making it clear that Mann’s story includes the history of his Tlingit ancestors. But directors Griswold-Tergis and Mann wisely choose to make Mann’s experience the grounding factor.
Mann is an engaging narrator, at ease before the camera, and not afraid to confess difficult emotions, such as his reluctance to admit he was Tlingit when a young man (for a while, in San Diego, he thought he was Mexican), and his fear of following in his family members’ footsteps in losing himself in drink and argument.
These fears, and the elders’ descriptions of the horrors Tlingits faced at the hands of white missionaries and Russian soldiers, are no less a part of the film than the peaceful interludes that show Mann smoking fish or working on the smokehouse; the directors’ make all the threads of Mann’s story visible, without trying to force them into any kind of set pattern — another of the film’s strengths. As it stands, the viewer — whether Native or non — is left to arrange these threads on her own to come up with a fuller picture of what it means to incorporate one’s history into the present, to honor the past while moving forward.