Arts & Leisure

‘It gives us hope’: Alaskan Nets

D.J. KING, THE best player on the Metlakatla basketball team, is one of the central characters in “Alaskan Nets,” the film that won the Best Feature Documentary Award at the 2021 Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.

I remember a chance meeting with Lloyd Komesar at the Middlebury Market on a sunny summer day. Must have been in 2014, when he regaled me with his idea of a late summer film festival in Middlebury.

I couldn’t help but be impressed by his passion and energy, but in truth I thought he had a bit of the Prof. Harold Hill in him, and I wondered when he was going to try to sell me a trombone.

Turns out, the man had a plan. His Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival is a dynamic addition to cultural life in Middlebury and Vermont in the late summer. The festival this past August, the seventh, was such a welcome release as we tentatively emerged (with all the proper safeguards) from our COVID restraints.

During a meeting before the festival, Lloyd had urged me not to miss the documentary “Alaskan Nets,” which he told me had a significant sports dimension: basketball in Alaska. Unfortunately, I was hosting a documentary myself with baseball content at precisely the same time, so I missed it.

Shortly after the festival, I had coffee with a friend who raved about “Alaskan Nets” and noted its Middlebury “connection.” The filmmaker, Jeff Harasimowicz, was there at the screening and identified himself as a Middlebury College graduate.

Indeed so! There are no fewer than six Harasimowiczes with Middlebury degrees. Jeff produced, directed, and edited this feature film.

“ALASKAN NETS” WON the award at August’s Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival for the Best Feature Documentary. It was directed, produced and edited by 2007 Middlebury College graduate Jeff Harasimowicz (second from right). Pictured are his partners at AO Film, Ryan Welch (far left) and Ryan Rossman (far right) and Metlakatla coach T.J. Scott (second from left).

I have now seen it twice (Jeff sent me a “confidential screener” as the film hasn’t yet been distributed) and can confirm that it’s terrific, a profoundly moving and deeply serious take on the impact of sports on communities.

In its premiere showing at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last April, “Alaskan Nets” won the Audience Choice Award, the festival’s top overall prize. Here in Middlebury, it won the Best Documentary Feature Award — the best among the 36 feature documentary entries!

“Alaskan Nets” is the story of a high school basketball team’s quest for a state championship and the impact of that quest on the community. Now that in itself is not a unique concept — a high school championship and a proud and engaged community. We can relate right here in Addison County. Jeff himself has described his film as “Friday Night Lights meets Hoosiers” (pretty good company!).

What’s unique about his documentary is the setting, the community, and how deeply woven basketball is to its very essence. “Alaskan Nets” is set in Metlakatla, a small island community of 1,300 in southeast Alaska. It’s the last native reserve in the state.

Fishing is the lifeblood of Metlakatla and basketball is its passion. In 1984, the Metlakatla Chiefs won the state championship and have been chasing another one ever since. The film takes us through that season, introducing the players and their families, connected so intimately to one another, and the hardship, physical danger, and intimacy of life in an extraordinarily tight-knit community.

In the film, “Grandmother” — who cooked day-of-game meals for the players — explained the bond: “We are a fishing community, that’s our heartbeat. Basketball is definitely more than a game.”

“Basketball is all we have,” the high school principal said, “It needs to be a ‘springboard’ for these kids.” Another townsperson related that “fishing’s going bad. The only thing to look forward to is basketball; it gives us hope.”

The word “hope” gets repeated again and again.

Three compelling figures come to be central in the film, the team’s two best players, cousins Danny Marsden and D.J. King and coach T.J. Scott, who describes Danny, talented and confident, as a “rare breed,” and D.J. as a “firecracker,” full of passion and intensity, sometimes his own worst enemy. You get to know them well, and care deeply about them, amid the general challenges of life in Metlakatla and the truly tragic moments they endure as the season progresses.

So how did Jeff Harasimowicz from Harvard, Mass., (25 miles from Boston; 3,600 miles from Metlakatla) come to make this stunning film? Jeff was a Film and Video major with a concentration in Economics at Middlebury with a keen interest in sports. Injured in football, he turned to rugby (“I loved rugby”) and was, as he told me in a recent conversation, “hoping to play basketball as a walk-on, but was the last player cut in 2004.”

METLAKATLA, ALASKA IS a small island community of 1,300 in southeast Alaska, the last native reserve in the state. It is a fishing village with a passion for basketball.

After Middlebury, he spent 10 years learning the film business in Los Angeles and New York, working on the campaigns of major films in large production companies (back-to-back Oscar winners, “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech,” as well as “Iron Man 2” for Marvel Studios). In 2013-14, he was the head of production at Teton Gravity Research in Jackson Hole, Wyo., largely making outdoor adventure films, and then founded his own production company in Bend, Ore., in 2015, called Raised by Wolves.

“I saw myself as a producer,” he explained, describing the adventure of making “Alaskan Nets.” “I wanted to tell a story and stumbled across a photo essay of a native reserve in Alaska bound by fishing and basketball. Producing is not as scary as directing. I was terrified of being a director.”

He reached out to Metlakatla coach T.J. Scott (whom he describes “one of the nicest guys, truly unselfish”), and the five-year process of getting “Alaskan Nets” from concept to screening began.

He needed a partner with actual filmmaking experience.

“I exhausted my list of possible production companies and thought, ‘This sucks, I can’t do it,’” he recalled. “Then a friend suggested ‘a guy in Eugene’ who had a small production company, AO films, Ryan Welch.”

Over coffee in Bend, Jeff made his pitch: “Would you like to move to Alaska for a year, leave your family, and make no money?” Ryan said “YES!” and “I had a partner!”

Jeff then bought a camera with his own money: “YouTube was my university.”

He needed to gain the trust of the people of Metlakatla. Approval of tribal council was essential, and Jeff made formal presentations in three trips there. Over time, he gained that trust: “The community could see our personal investment. We were putting ourselves out there. Us against the world.”

Jeff was married to Haley in October 2017 — and then promptly left in November to live in Metlakatla fulltime until April, after which he made weekly visits for five months. Ryan Welch and his partner Ryan Rossman also were there for weeks at a time. Jeff and Haley survived this early separation; they now have two children, Weston (2) and Colbie (1).

The support of Alaska Airlines was also crucial to the success of this venture. “The travel costs would have been insanely expensive, and we couldn’t have done it without them.”

Since the film was completed, Jeff and his partners have picked up as an executive producer the actor Chris Pratt, who spent much of his childhood in Alaska. “Having Chris on board is a huge validator for us,” Jeff says.

Jeff and Alaska Airlines flew in members of the Metlakatla team and community for the premiere at Santa Barbara last April. “They loved it,” Jeff says. “I owe so much to the people of Metlakatla, for their hospitality, their trust, and their love, and for letting me and my team be a part of their world and to tell their story.”

He is close to finalizing a distribution deal and plans to get “Alaskan Nets” back here to Middlebury. Don’t you miss it!

Call me if you need a ride.

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