It was the unspoiled vastness of Alaska’s wilderness that first brought producer Jeffry Silverman to the state. It was 1983 and Silverman was a recent film graduate of Penn State University. He had no idea that he, as a non-Native, would someday play a role in telling the stories – of joy and struggle – of the indigenous peoples of the land.
“I certainly knew as soon as I got here, that this is home,” he said.
Nearly 30 years later, Silverman lives in Anchorage, Alaska, with his family and has operated his own company, Blueberry Productions, since 1994. His first feature-length documentary, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska, took four years to complete and will be released to PBS stations this fall.
The hour-long film explores the rocky struggle of Alaska Natives’ civil rights through several generations in the early to mid-20th Century. It begins by chronicling the efforts of Alaska Native William Paul, who helped direct the Alaska Native Brotherhood to organize a political presence for indigenous people in the state. A large part of the story also focuses on the efforts of Tlingit activists Roy and Elizabeth Peratrovich.
Initially, Silverman was going to focus on the Peratrovich’s leadership in the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, which were both integral to the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act in 1945 despite steep opposition. However, during the writing stage Silverman shifted the focus to provide a national audience with more context about the civil rights struggle in the state.
In telling the story, Silverman uses both historical re-enactments, as well as first-hand interviews with historians and Alaska Native people familiar with the movement. He believes that through film comes the opportunity to spread awareness about the little-known fight for rights – ranging from citizenship to voting to desegregation – of the Native people who had for so long been treated as second class citizens on their own ancestral lands.
“With all the dramatization and with actors, we brought it to life,” Silverman said. “…Something happens there that affects people much more strongly than reading a newspaper article or something than a black a white photo—there is someone looking back at you.”
In some of the interviews, the children of the key players in the movement told of their own powerful experiences. The now-adults described what it felt like to grow up in a place where it was not uncommon to see signs that read “No dogs or Indians allowed.”
“These are people on camera talking about what it means to them. That goes right to the core of the person who’s watching, the emotional core,” Silverman said.
He added that this type of social impact documentary has the power to reach the hearts and minds of viewers who might not be affected or otherwise aware of a larger issue, which in this case is the struggle for civil rights by Native people.
During filming, the project’s director, Phil Lucas (Choctaw), a veteran PBS producer, passed away. It was a challenge to carry on the project, Silverman said. Lucas, who was also a longtime actor, director, writer and well-known throughout the producing community, was a colleague and friend.
The way Silverman dealt with the loss, in addition to the many things that arose during filming, impressed actress activist and playwright Diane Benson, who collaborated with Silverman on the film. Benson, of the Tlingit tribe, penned a one-act play on Elizabeth Peratrovich.
"He took on the new responsibilities. He never gets too discouraged," Benson said. "That can potentially be more chaotic than it was."
In one scene, Benson, who also played the part of Elizabeth Peratrovich, recalls the pressure of filming quickly the arguably most pivotal scene in the movie – the Peratroviches memorable and impassioned testimony before the Alaska legislature which led to anti-discrimination laws.
"Jeff was great under those conditions," she said. "I love working with him."
Silverman, now a little more seasoned in producing for PBS, has advice for others looking to embark on a similar journey. He recommends they start off with small shorts or even webisodes to wet their beaks.
“Do a short version of the full-length piece. Don’t try to bite off the whole thing off at once. Research, write and raise a little bit of money or whatever for a sort of 5- to 10-minute pilot, treatment or demo,” he said. “That becomes your calling-card. Think small.”
By having something short to show prospective funders, would-be filmmakers can pick their interests by answering the two important questions funders will want to know: “What are you dying to tell people and what are they dying to see?”
Written by Nancy Kelsey.
Interviews conducted by Nancy Kelsey. Edited by Ben Kreimer.