Torsten Kjellstrand & Jamie Francis


Torsten Kjellstrand & Jamie Francis

Seeking untold stories of value has been Francis and Kjellstrand’s life long occupation. Having taught and presented all over the world, these two journalists have made storytelling their vocation.

While working at The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., Francis and Kjellstrand were assigned to a story on Isabella Blatchford, an Alutiiq woman from Kodiak Island, Alaska, who was in Portland for her breast cancer treatment. Captivated by Isabella’s story, they stayed in touch. Over coffee one day, Isabella shared her plans for her remaining days on this earth. Making a documentary about Refuge Rock was one her wishes. Francis and Kjellstrand were more than eager to help her accomplish this dream. Isabella died soon after reaching Refuge Rock, but not before asking Francis and Kjellstrand to finish the film they had started.

The hour-length documentary Finding Refuge follows two intertwined narratives. The first narrative is the story of a woman in the midst of a fight with cancer who yearns to set foot on Refuge Rock to reconnect to her Alutiiq heritage. Refuge Rock is a tiny island where Russian fur traders massacred hundreds of Alutiiq people in 1784, setting off a period of brutal cultural destruction that left generations of Alutiiq feeling shameful and pained. The second narrative tells a broader effort of the Alutiiq people today and how they are preserving and finding pride in their culture.

Francis and Kjellstrand applied to the Public Media Content Fund in 2012 and were awarded funding for Finding Refuge. Panelists who reviewed the proposal described it as “compelling” and “committed to highlighting the culture.”

Since receiving the award, the Finding Refuge team has completed two shooting trips to Old Harbour and Kodiak. They now have several clips edited for funding proposals and are in the process of creating an official website that will feature a new trailer of the film.

Presenting Finding Refuge as an authentic and true film is vital to Francis and Kjellstrand. “Because none of us grew up in or around the places or cultures we are documenting, we felt a strong need for a group of local, Native advisors who were willing to be available for advice, to look over footage or other material for accuracy or identification, and for help in finding information and contacts that we would need to build a respectful, accurate, and compelling film,” said Kjellstrand. The producers rely on their collaboration with three Native advisors who live in, or were raised in, Old Harbour.

Director of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak, Alaska, Sven Haakanson, Ph.D.,serves as an advisor for Finding Refuge. Haakanson grew up in Old Harbour, was a MacArthur Grant recipient, and one of the anthropologists who discovered the location of Refuge Rock. He holds a B.A. in English from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and a Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University.

“That site itself was one that I think people forgot—intentionally—because of what had happened there in August 13, 1784,” said Haakanson. “There were over 500 Alutiiq people—women, children, and men—that were killed in that one day. For me, this is where Russians took control of the peoples’ future and destiny at Kodiak. We became servants to the occupiers. We became a conquered people.”

Jamie Francis is from North Carolina and has worked for a variety of newspapers and has covered world news for six years until he and his wife, Pamela, decided to settle down with their two children in Portland, Ore. Francis has worked at The Oregonian for the past eight years. “Journalism for me has never felt like work…it’s a passion. It never feels like work,” said Francis.

As a young boy with a passion for telling stories, Kjellstrand moved from Sweden with his family to the U.S. and studied literature and journalism. Kjellstrand received his Master’s Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia, with a focus on documentary photojournalism. In 2003, he was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University where he studied Native American cultural history, politics, literature, and anthropological methods with Native American professors. Like Francis, he and his wife and children settled down in the west where Francis found himself at The Oregonian. Currently, Kjellstrand works as a freelance photographer and filmmaker in New York City and Portland, Ore. He has since won many national and international awards over the years, including Newspaper Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographer Association/Pictures of the Year International contest in 1996.

Finding Refuge is targeting a national broadcast for Spring 2014.

Interviews conducted and edited by Georgiana Lee.

Voice overs were conducted by Larry Brown. 

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