Film class focuses on folk festival

Documentary compares Alaska event to National Folk Festival in Maine

Posted: Friday, April 11, 2003

A group of 15 University of Maine students made the long flight to Juneau with their movie cameras this week to film a documentary about the 29th Annual Alaska Folk Festival.

"We are trying to explore the documentary film and new media perspectives," said University of Maine New Media Professor Mike Scott, who led the student trip. "I had some ties to Alaska and I thought it would be nice to do a comparison between the National Folk Festival (held in Maine) and this traditional festival."

The group of students, slightly groggy from jet lag, spent Sunday at Centennial Hall crunching potato chips while they labeled tapes and hung a folk festival banner. A young man in a watch cap shot film of volunteers performing sound checks and hanging the elaborate festival backdrop.

"Everywhere you look there is a mountain," said Katherine Quinn, 22, as she stood in the Centennial Hall lobby, looking out the window. "In Maine we have like two mountains."

Though Quinn marveled at the geographic differences between Maine and Alaska, she said that in many ways the places were the same, with similar weather and remoteness. Quinn is part of a small group that will be doing most of the interviewing for the documentary, and taking still photographs, she said.

Ian Chittenden, 22, who came to Juneau for the festival last year, said one of the main themes of the documentary will be "how music builds a sense of connection between people."

"Juneau's folk festival is not about money, tourists or Juneau's economy," Chittenden said. "It's purely musical."

Some of the students, who called themselves "The Maine Observers," played "John Ladner," a traditional Maine folk song, during the festival Monday night. Playing a festival set was meant to give the documentary filmmakers perspective, as well as to help build their relationship with the performers, Chittenden said.

"For us I think it was important to be seen as participants. Do you understand what I mean when I say, 'exploitation?' I don't want it to seem like we are just coming here to film and then leaving," Chittenden said. "We want to engage people."

Chittenden's colleague Michael Huberman, 22, described the National Folk Festival in Bangor, Maine, as a highly commercial touring operation. The acts are famous and musicians would never finish their set and come sit in the audience they way people do in Juneau, he said.

"Juneau is like grass-roots as opposed to the commercially run operation," Huberman said.

The class plans to show its documentary about Juneau at the National Folk Festival. Students debated whether publicizing the Alaska festival among folk fans on the East Coast would ruin the character of the smaller event by attracting people to it.

"Look outside, there is just like a little tiny billboard that says, 'folk festival' and the people who know about it come," Chittenden said. "We wondered as a class about the ethics of making a documentary about something so separate and untouched. There are so few commercial interests, we don't want to break that."

• Julia O'Malley can be reached at

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