TV documentary chronicles AK's road to statehood

Film to air on public stations throughout the state tonight

Posted: Monday, February 06, 2006

FAIRBANKS - When Michael Letzring talks about the making of a documentary chronicling the journey to Alaska statehood, he laughed heartily when describing how more than a hundred hours of interviews had to be narrowed into an one-hour film. "That's the hard part," he said.

Letzring produced "The 49th Star: Creating Alaska," created by public television station KUAC in partnership with the University of Alaska. The film makes its debut this weekend during the celebrations commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Alaska Constitutional Convention. It will air on stations throughout the state tonight.

The project came about several years ago when Fairbanks historians and university officials began forming ideas for commemorating the anniversary of the beginning of the convention. According to Professor Terrence Cole, director of the office of public history, the documentary grew from a plan to gather the oral histories of those involved in the convention. As the hours of interviews piled up, the project broadened.

"The idea was, well, we're doing all these interviews, we should have some sort of public way of sharing it with the people," Cole said.

Sitting in front of his controls and screens at KUAC on Thursday, Letzring cut to various excerpts of the documentary, describing the range of processes, techniques, interviews and archives used to create the film.

The most prominent excerpts are the interviews compiled over a two-year period of the people still living who were involved in the convention, including interviews with Vic Fischer, Jack Coghill, George Rogers, Tom Stewart, Katy Hurley and George Sundborg. Letzring said the 100 hours of interviews have already been transcribed and archived at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.

Letzring also relied heavily on archived documents, photos and artifacts. He pored over personal photo collections of delegate families and archives statewide and online throughout the country.

One of the most notable finds is the work of delegate Steve McCutcheon, Letzring said. McCutcheon--a professional photographer--and an assistant are responsible for many of the still photographs and about 25 minutes of moving film from the convention, Letzring said.

The black and white film is grainy, but revealing. The images show insight into the culmination of weeks and days of the convention when, Letzring said, the delegates begin to realize they were on to something historic.

"People really didn't know where it was going the beginning," Letzring said.

The outline for the documentary was a struggle to develop, Lettering said. The script team of Letzring, Cole and head writer Laurence Goldin pondered the countless routes they could take in the storytelling. They decided to focus on how the 55 delegates, all from wide range of political mindsets, arrived at a consensus in developing the constitution by putting their usual partisanism aside.

"Here, they buried that," Letzring said.

From there, Letzring said wading through the stories and accounts of the events to give a concise overview didn't become any easier.

"It's not a simple story," he said. "There's never a simple conclusion."

Getting details correct, while trying to meld different interpretations or characterizations of the same events was challenging, Letzring said. In the end, 15 minutes of the film covers Alaska history, 22 minutes focuses on the convention and the final 15 minutes is devoted to the statehood movement.

Letzring emphasized the documentary is an overview, a taste of the countless aspects involved in the history, convention and statehood movement. He said only a handful of delegates of the 55 are featured.

"If I gave each delegate a minute, that's the whole movie," he said.

Cole said such a project has an upside and a downside.

"The good is, you get the essence of the reality," he said. "The bad part is, it's a necessary simplification, like all of history is a necessary simplification," he said. "If you didn't simplify it, it wouldn't really be intelligible."

Fischer was also intimately tied to the film and got a sneak peak at the finished product. He said he enjoyed the visual storytelling and how it will likely be an enticement for people to learn more.

"There's so much more material on every little aspect that film," he said. "This film basically scratches the surface."

But the enticement is part of the goal, Cole said. "The more you know about something the more you want to learn about it."

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