Scott Macklin’s first full-length film was just around the corner, but he didn’t know it.
Macklin, who directs the UW’s Program for Educational Transformation Through Technology, was working on an educational partnership with people on the Olympic Peninsula last spring, when he made friends with members of the Hoh tribe.
They told him about a planned tribal journey in August. It would involve not just the Hoh, but all the canoe peoples from Vancouver to Taholah, who would reach Taholah in the traditional dugouts. It would be an important milestone in the cultural reawakening of the tribes. Moreover, for the Hoh, it was coming at a time of transition, when Chief Kly would be handing his role on to his son Kalip. Documenting the journey would be an important part of the transition.
Macklin began thinking. His first love was film. In fact, he was accepted at the American Film Institute, deciding eventually to study philosophy. He had made several short films and videos. But here was a project of depth and substance.
He decided to supply the Hoh with their documentary by participating in the journey. “I tried to figure out how to frame the story,” he said, “but ultimately, I let the journey itself dictate the outcome of my work.” As it happened, the story emerged by itself. The voyages, and the ceremonies that accompanied them, were homage to the tribes’ ancestors, a reawakening of a culture that, in the words of an elder, “went out to sea, and is now returning” a culture which they wanted to relearn.
Macklin traveled initially as an observer, beginning at Neah Bay. He was in a support boat with his camera. When he’d ask one of the leaders how far they would paddle that day, the answer invariably was, “Oh, it’s just around the corner.” He learned the phrase had multiple meanings. The destination could be near or far, but they’d reach it, eventually.
Around the corner, in this case, meant they would catch the ebb tide and paddle out a couple of miles, begin paddling down the coast and catch the next high tide, bringing them in to where the next tribe was located, a journey of about five hours. And so they would make their way, over the course of a week, from Neah Bay to Taholah.
At each landing there would be a formal ceremony and protocol. The voyagers would have to ask permission from the local chief to stop there. After permission was granted, the locals would feed the visitors, and the meal would be followed by a potlatch ceremony, with exchange of goods, songs and dances. Ceremonies would continue into the wee hours, but just after sunrise the voyagers would set out again, their numbers swelled by voyagers from the community.
As the voyage proceeded, Macklin’s role as the impartial, detached observer was eroded by time and circumstance. While approaching the Queets River outlet, the normally placid waters were roiled by 8-foot waves, and the passage to shore was obscured by a thick fog bank. One canoe flipped. Macklin and others in the support boat rescued a 13-year-old girl who was screaming from under the dugout canoe. “We were supposed to land at Queets, but could not make the entry so we continued on four more hours to land at Port Granville,” he said. “I ended up pulling in the Quinault canoe — not because anyone wanted to honor me, but because I was the freshest body.”
As he pulled, first in the Elwha and later in the Queets and the Quinault canoes, his perspective changed. The rhythm of the paddles was hypnotic. The detachment of the filmmaker was replaced by Macklin’s sense of connection with water and sky; time was measured in strokes of paddling rather than reels of tape.
When he reached Taholah, Macklin joined 10,000 others in a three-day celebration. All 21 tribes joined in taking their turn at the ceremonies, exchanging stories, dances and gifts. Macklin crept ever closer to the ceremonies with his camera, capturing some things on film that probably have never been photographed before.
Then it ended. With 16 hours of footage in his bag, Macklin returned home, first logging and digitizing the film, then editing. And editing. In the middle of the night. On lunch breaks. At stop lights. After three months, he was ready to share his work with the elders of the Hoh.
They must have liked what they saw. He offered his film as a gift, which he hoped they would share with all the tribal chiefs. But after they saw his work, they realized it was important to share beyond the Native American community.
They re-gifted the film to him, giving him permission to have it shown to broader audiences. In its first major public screening, “Tribal Journey: Celebrating Our Ancestors” will be shown at 4 p.m. May 25 at the Egyptian Theater as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. Hoh singers and dancers will be attending the screening.
“I knew there was a first film in me somewhere,” he said. “I just had no idea it would be a documentary. The story simply caught me. It was a combination of luck and providence.”
Macklin hopes to continue his relationship with the Hoh. He’d like to offer workshops on video production, so that they can capture their own history on film. He realizes that “Tribal Journey” is just a thin layer of their story.
As for future film projects, Macklin has some ideas, but nothing he’s pursuing actively right now.
But, it’s hard not to believe that his next film is just around the corner.