Senior Thesis Took Alumnus to Remote Alaskan Islands

The best ideas sometimes come from spontaneous curiosities, such as Connor Smyers’ topic for his recent documentary Diomede.

Last summer, Smyers ’18, an LMU SFTV film and TV production alumnus, looked at a map and wondered what was in the middle of the Bering Strait. He thought he’d see remnants of the land-sea bridge that once connected Russia to mainland Alaska, but he did not expect to find two islands with as interesting of stories as Big and Little Diomede.

“Dividing the two islands is the international date line, for one, but also the international border between Russia and America,” said Smyers. “So, there are two islands. They’re literally almost touching; one’s owned by Russia, one’s owned by the U.S. I thought ‘OK, something happened here that people just don’t know about.’ I zoomed in further on the map, and there’s a village on the American side and a collection of buildings — just a cluster. I was dumbstruck. I needed to know what that was. The more I researched about those islands, the more I became interested in that. I fell in love with it. I researched it to the point that I couldn’t not go.”

This fascination gripped him just as Smyers began working on his senior documentary thesis. “I got approval from the tribal counsel a month before we went out,” said Smyers. “I put everything together. It took three flights and a helicopter to get out there, and the same to come back. It came together so quickly.”

The 15-minute documentary, produced by Jackson Casimiro ’18, also an SFTV film ans TV production alumnus, explores the lives of the island natives and their history in the face of climate change and the cultural impacts of technology. “They’re living in such a remote part of the world,” said Smyers, “but at the same time their challenges aren’t that unique. Their shorelines are eroding; that’s happening here; that’s happening down the street. They’re facing clean water issues; so are we. It’s so foreign and yet, so familiar.

“There are also other socioeconomic issues that aren’t being addressed by the media. A majority of the people on the island are Native Alaskans, and their families have been living there for thousands of years sustainably. But as we enter into this area of climate change, their old way of life is being threatened and the westernization has hit hard. We introduce technology, we introduce Western ideas and institutions like school, and then we take it away … It’s becoming harder to justify living there.”

To help the community maintain some of their culture and history, Smyers and his team partnered with GoPro to bring the village cameras that could handle their harsh environment and could be used to record spoken history. “It’s something the elders can pass on,” said Smyers. “It can empower them with a voice.”

As of now the Diomede project is primarily funded through crowd-funding as well as support from GoPro, the Los Angeles Loyolan, and Roar Network. Smyers is working with the latter two to build a web series called Northland about different aspect of living in Alaska, including the mining industry, schooling and the transport from the mainland to the island. After festival runs for the current short documentary and completion of the web series, the team hopes to pitch a feature about Diomede.

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