When Braden King and Laura Moya first discussed making a documentary film together in 1994, Moya already knew of an intriguing subject. She told King about Dutch Harbor, a remote fishing village in the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Moya had spent several years living in Homer, about a hundred miles southwest of Anchorage, and had heard countless stories about Dutch Harbor, all of which painted it as an Old West-style outpost. The weather was brutal, the streets were mud, and fights erupted at the drop of a hat. Dutch Harbor experienced a period of rapid growth during the 1970s and ’80s, which has since been checked by declining crab prices.

After working together at the Chicago International Film Festival, King and Moya immediately began work on their project. “We were at a pretty motivated time in our lives,” says King. Moya arrived in Dutch Harbor first to begin research and preproduction, and King followed her a month later. They began sussing out the town, whose population of little more than 4,000 triples during fishing season. “We spent about two months there before we ever took the camera out of the case,” says King. “A lot of people were suspicious of us initially because the town had been stereotyped as a lawless frontier town, and they’re all tired of it. Once people figured out we were going to be there for a while, and once we developed some relationships, they became more trusting.” The pair successfully petitioned nationally and locally for grant money and modest corporate sponsorship.

King and Moya compiled a list of facts and ideas they had responded to most strongly during their research and used it to guide them toward the story they wanted to tell. “We went about collecting those things, although we weren’t sure how we were going to use them,” says King. “It was a very intuitive, associative process.” Indeed, the result, Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, eschews a linear narrative in favor of a more impressionistic and ruminative format. Stark black-and-white footage of punishing seas, the town’s barren landscape, and the crabbing industry are set against measured voice-over interviews with fishermen, Aleut natives, artists, and public officials. The voice-overs, combined with a hauntingly bleak original sound track produced by Michael Krassner of the Chicago country rock band Pinetop Seven, effectively set a somber tone, helping to create a portrait of how Dutch Harbor’s brief boom forced a homogenized American culture of Burger Kings and cable TV on a more traditional way of life. As fisherman Buck Rogers says at the film’s end, “What is it about Americans that demands that they civilize every town?”

King and Moya are now working on getting the piece shown at festivals and finding a distributor. Dutch Harbor premieres at 7 PM this Sunday at First Chicago Center, First National Plaza, 38 S. Dearborn. For more information, call 312-326-5580.

–Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Michael Krassner, Laura Moya and Braden King by Marty Perez.