Thursday, April 30, 2009

PhD student wins film award

When the UA International Polar Year Young Researchers’ Network asked students “What’s Your Alaska?,” doctoral student Archana Bali (pictured at left) had an answer. “Voices of the Caribou People,” a film Bali shot in collaboration with indigenous communities, was the first place winner of the IPY video contest, and will be shown during the UAF student film festival.

Bali said she undertook the project because she wanted to document the knowledge of indigenous people who have a long relationship with caribou as part of her dissertation research on the cumulative effects of climate change, industrial development, and disturbance to caribou herds. Bali said, “I wanted to collect information from local people who are making local observations of change, using their own words.”

She found that the indigenous people she talked to were eager to share their knowledge and observations. “They wanted to contribute,” Bali said, “and I was lucky to be in the right place.”

Anaktuvuk Pass in Alaska; Old Crow, Yukon Territory; LutselK’e and Wekweeti in the Northwest Territories; Arviat, Nunavut; Kawawachikamach, Quebec, were the locations Bali visited over a four-month period in the summer of 2008. She traveled alone and found the journey enjoyable and the people she met kind and extremely hospitable. “These are wonderful people and because of them, it was a great learning experience,” she said.

When starting the work Bali had no film experience, so she took a two-week film course at UAF. Also, Assistant Professor Maya Salganek of the theater department was a big help. Bali developed the project with her advisor, Associate Professor Gary Kofinas. Funding was provided by the CircumArctic Rangifer Monitoring and Assessment Network, a program of the International Polar Year.

Bali grew up in India and arrived in Alaska in September 2007 to start her studies as a student of UAF’s Resilience and Adaptation Program. She has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in wildlife biology and conservation from the National Center of Biological Sciences and the Center for Wildlife Studies in India. She came to UAF as the George Schaller Fellow in conservation studies, and is working on an interdisciplinary PhD in wildlife conservation and natural resources management. Her past work experience includes a stint with Greenpeace.

Before coming to UAF, Bali had no experience with caribou but was interested in climate change and conservation. She has since become fascinated with caribou research, including the impact of climate change on wildlife habitats. “I didn’t know anything about the conditions and I wasn’t able to appreciate them,” she said. “As a way of getting grounded and starting my research I decided to go to the communities and understand why the caribou are so important.” Using video she was able to capture their words exactly the way people wanted to say them.

In some communities the elders did not speak English and she had to work through interpreters. While caribou hunting with local residents, she found herself in the midst of a large caribou herd. “It was very exciting to see caribou moving all around me,” she said. “It was incredible.”

After shooting 108 hours of video, Bali created a short version of her work—twelve minutes—which she entered in the contest. “Reviewing the tapes and editing the file was a slow process,” she said. She doesn’t plan to let the rest of the footage go to waste, and will create a short film based on interviews in each village and produce a final consolidated documentary that can be used to communicate people’s voices to researchers and decision makers. All the interviews will be made available in public domain via the internet, for people interested in the human-caribou systems of the North. “Video is a powerful tool to reach out to the outside world,” Bali said.

Winners of the “What’s Your Alaska?” video contest will be shown Saturday, May 2 at 2 p.m. during the UAF Theater and Film Department’s student film festival. Photo contest winners will be displayed in the Great Hall from 2 to 7 p.m. The event will also include a reception for the winners from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Great Hall. For more information, call 474-7931 or 474-6264 or e-mail.

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