Filming in 30 Below: Conversation with “In Attla’s Tracks” Filmmaker Catharine Axley

| April 20, 2016

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The following is a guest post from De Anza College film student Chris Castro.


Legendary dog musher George Attla maintained a racing career spanning over five decades with numerous championship titles, and is generally recognized as the greatest sprint sled dog racer of the twentieth century. But Attla’s legacy stretches far beyond the trophies stacked high in his home in Huslia. In embodying ideals of persistence despite handicap and pride in one’s cultural heritage and history, Attla became a hero within his community, state, and country, particularly for Alaskan Natives and Native Americans in the United States.

In Attla’s Tracks will screen as part of the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival’s Shorts 1 program. We caught up with filmmaker Catharine Axley and discussed her experiences in creating this poignant documentary short.

In Attla's Tracks: Joe Bifelt on the starting line at the 2015 Open North American dogsled race.

In Attla’s Tracks: Joe Bifelt on the starting line at the 2015 Open North American dogsled race.

Hi Catharine! How did you come across this story?

I have a state representative friend in Alaska who was and continues to be working on really interesting legislation related to Alaska Native language revitalization. I decided to spend a summer in Alaska to learn more about his work and the state in general and see if I could find a story for my thesis film in Stanford’s MFA program. While in Alaska, I came across an article about George Attla, and his work with youth in his village of Huslia, Alaska. Though I had never heard of him before, I was struck by the fact that here was this world champion racer who had accomplished so much but even into his 80s, wasn’t finished.

What drove you to create a documentary short about it?

I recognized that George’s life story combined with his training of his grandnephew could be an incredible feature length documentary, but I needed to make a short for my film program, and also recognized that George’s training of Joe was only going to happen once, so I decided to make a plan to use their mentorship story as the core for my short thesis film. At the same time, I kept the idea and story of the longer film in the back of my mind, and worked to get enough coverage for that as well, so that now I am able to work on that feature version.

How did George Attla’s family react when you disclosed that you wanted to capture their lives and community on film?

George was interested in highlighting the work he and his community have been doing in trying to restore the tradition of raising dog teams, so he saw this as an opportunity to bring more attention to their work. We were so lucky to be so generously and graciously welcomed into his home and into the community.

George Attla coaching his grandnephew on the tricks to training a 16-dog sled team.

George Attla coaching his grandnephew on the tricks to training a 16-dog sled team.

Tell us about what planning a documentary shoot such as this one looks like.

It was a challenge! Preparing for temperatures that got as low as 30 below! We were lucky to have such awesome friends up north who lent us big winter jackets and even fur hats (I now have a new appreciation for the effectiveness of real fur vs. fake fur and other synthetic materials. Nothing compares when you’re out in frigid temps for long periods of time!). We also had to prepare for the effects of the cold on camera equipment – that meant lots of hand warmers to keep battery packs warm and figuring out a system for moving from the cold outdoors to inside cozy, warm cabins, where our lenses would fog up immediately.

In Attla’s Tracks emphasizes the strong sense of community found within Huslia, Alaska.  What was it like to begin a production in a town where everyone seems to know everyone?

Having the privilege of spending time in Huslia and getting to experience what village life is like was one of the most incredible parts of making this film. Because the village is so small and remote, not only does everyone know everyone, but it’s rare for there to be visitors apart from family members and friends. Because of this, we became very close to many families in the community, and particularly close with George and his family, as we stayed with him in his small cabin.

George Attla advising his grandnephew Joe Bifelt moments before the community New Years dogsled race in Huslia, AK.

George Attla advising his grandnephew Joe Bifelt moments before the community New Years dogsled race in Huslia, AK.

The incorporation of archival footage of George racing with his dogs seamlessly bridges the past with the present. Was it a struggle to find this footage and how did you sift through it all to decide what you wanted to include?

Alaska has two incredible archival film collections – one at UAF (the university) in Fairbanks, and the other is AMIPA – the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association in Anchorage. Because George was the sports hero in Alaska from the 1960’s through the late 1980’s, and even beyond, there is a lot of footage of him. Though it was hard to know what to include, I knew that the longer film would be an opportunity to dive even deeper into the archival treasure troves they have.

While the dangers of losing touch with tradition are stressed within the film, George’s grandnephew, Joe Bifelt, comes to be seen as someone who truly understands and upholds his community’s culture and history. Are there many young adults like him in the Huslia community?

I’ve been so impressed with many of the young folks I’ve met in Huslia – it seems like there’s been a movement recently throughout Alaska that is inspiring many young people to embrace their cultural traditions in unique ways. It’s a really exciting time and there’s some incredible work also in the arena of language revitalization. There’s also a lot of movement on figuring out new ways to incorporate and place value on Native knowledge within westernized educational systems. I of course, have been particularly impressed and inspired by Joe – it was incredible to see him transform under George’s mentorship and I can’t wait to see what he continues to do for his community and Alaska at large.

Joe Bifelt waxing his sled before the community New Years dogsled race.

Joe Bifelt waxing his sled before the community New Years dogsled race.

The film captures such stunning visuals of Alaska (an overhead extreme long shot of Joe racing happens to be one of my favorites).  Were there any shots that were difficult to produce but worth it?

Haha! Yes, well we did do some slow-mo shots on a snow machine with Joe attached on a sled on the back. We looked really silly, riding around with a sled being pulled by a snow machine with a big camera on the back, but the shots were worth it! Also, my twin brother came up north with me to get the drone aerial shots!

You effectively traverse a variety of serious subjects within a short amount of time. Was it difficult to guide the narrative and edit it in such a way that not only serves justice to George and Joe’s story, but also communicates the themes you wanted to present?

Yeah, it was quite the challenge. I wanted to communicate so much, but also wanted to maintain a lyrical editing style in which the observational footage felt almost like fiction film footage. I think the main thing was to develop a focus – the guiding arm of the film – which was the relationship between George and Joe – not George’s story, not the training of the dogs – but the relationship – and use that to inform what I included and had to exclude. Again, I take comfort in the fact that I am now able to widen the scope of the film with the feature-length version, and am excited to take viewers on a very different path!

In Attla's Tracks filmmaker Catharine Axley

In Attla’s Tracks filmmaker Catharine Axley

Tell us about your Stanford University experience.

It was great! My former classmates are now my work buddies. And in fact we just formed a production company! Paper Bridge Films! And the professors became mentors – not just teachers. I can’t tell you how much I learned in the program – it was a great way to grow and begin to find my filmmaking voice.

Do you have any advice for student filmmakers?

I would say the best way to first learn is by just making films. So shoot something! On your phone! On a nice camera – anything, and play around with it. Try out some editing software. But then, find an editor or DP whom you admire or whom you have access to, and volunteer you time. I learned so much from the editor I worked under in New York – Joe Borruso. There’s something to be said for bringing the apprenticeship model back!

Catharine Axley is a Bay Area-based documentary filmmaker. She is currently working on her first full-length documentary, ATTLA, based on her short film, “In Attla’s Tracks.”

Learn more about Catharine’s work on her website:

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In Attla’s Tracks screens as part of SFIFF59’s Shorts 1 Program on Sunday, April 24 @ 6:45 pm, and Thursday, May 5 @ 5:30 pm.

Screenings at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco, California.

Christopher Castro’s guest post is the first in our ongoing series of film school students interviewing aspiring student filmmakers.


Christopher Castro is a communication and film studies student at De Anza College. He is currently working on transferring to a University of California Campus.

Christopher Castro is a communication and film studies student at De Anza College.  He is currently working on transferring to a University of California campus.

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