‘Sacred Alaska’: Q&A With Film Director Simon Scionka On Native Culture And Orthodox Spirituality

By Jovan Tripkovic

March 11, 2024


“Sacred Alaska” is an award-winning, visually stunning documentary with compelling storytelling. The film explores the profound influence of Orthodoxy, brought by St. Herman and Russian monks in the late 18th century, on Native Alaskan society. It also highlights the unique fusion of Native Alaskan indigenous beliefs with Orthodox traditions.

“Sacred Alaska” is the first independent film project for director Simon Scionka, an experienced documentary filmmaker who has made such films for over 20 years in more than 40 countries.

After three years of laborious work, “Sacred Alaska” had its world premiere at the International Orthodox Film Festival, Byzantfest, in Melbourne, Australia, this past November. Following the premiere, “Sacred Alaska” won the award for the best feature film of 2023.

Simon Scionka, spoke to Jovan Tripkovic, an editorial fellow at Religion Unplugged, about the documentary, Native Alaskan culture and Orthodox spirituality.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Jovan Tripkovic: What is the “Sacred Alaska” documentary about?

Simon Scionka: “Sacred Alaska” tells a bit of the history of how Orthodoxy came to Alaska through the journey of the original monks who came as missionaries, including Saint Herman of Alaska. We also tell a little bit about the lives of saints such as Saint Herman, Saint Innocent, and Saint Yakov, who was the first Native Alaskan to attend seminary and become a priest. He ended up evangelizing many Native Alaskans.

The film is not merely a historical look back. It also explores the legacy of what exists today from what was planted many years ago with the missionary efforts. It looks at what Orthodoxy looks like today in Alaska. How might we, who live in a very different environment, here in the lower 48, for example, live our lives?

In “Sacred Alaska,” we hope to portray the beautiful, simple life of how Native Alaskans live the Gospel in their villages and take care of their community, the animals, and the environment. They are truly connected with the presence of God in the midst of creation and in their interactions with each other as human beings. The film illustrates how we can simply give out the Gospel by loving one another. I hope that message resonates with others.

Tripkovic: What led to the production of this film?

Scionka: My 2004 trip to Spruce Island was my first experience in Alaska, and I loved it. It deeply impacted me and it was part of my journey to Orthodoxy. At that time, I didn’t think I was going to make a film up there. However, the more I reflect on it, I come to the conclusion that the trip planted the seeds for the film.

Father Michael Oleksa had come to our community on one of his speaking tours. He told stories of the saints, and we were blown away by his stories. What an amazing storyteller. Silas Karbo, the producer, and I connected with him and read his book: Orthodox Alaska. This was in 2019.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic started, and a lot of my work dried up. I wasn’t busy, and I didn’t have a lot of work on my plate. One of the barriers to doing your own film project is often time. Well, all of a sudden, I had time, and Silas also had time. The two of us knew Father Michael, and Silas had some family living on Kodiak Island. I also knew the monks on Spruce Island from my missionary trip 20 years ago, when I first visited Alaska.

We thought that we should go up to Alaska and just do some preliminary filming. We traveled up there with the idea of making a film about the lives of Orthodox Alaskan saints, telling the story of St. Herman and some other saints as well. However, interviewing Father Michael pointed us in a particular direction. He told us that we should visit and talk to people in the villages. He really guided us and gave us ideas of what to do next.

This was during the summer of 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. We couldn’t go to villages because they were all locked down. However, we were able to go to Anchorage and visit Father Michael for an interview. We also visited Spruce Island because it wasn’t a village; we just went to the remote part of the island and filmed the chapel and spent time with Father Andrew.

As soon as we came back, we started working on the project. First, we produced a little promo teaser. We designed the film’s website and created a layout of the story we wanted to tell. The next step for us was raising money to go back and do extensive filming. Over the course of a year, thank God, we were able to raise a decent amount of money through friends and family in my church community.

Tripkovic: How long did it take you to complete this project?

Scionka: Just a little over three years. We started in the summer of 2020. We took four trips to Alaska: summer 2020, summer 2021, winter and fall of 2022. Meanwhile, we were editing the whole time as well. We finished the final edit last summer. After editing, we did some final custom music scoring with a composer and sound. The film was completed last October. We had our world premiere in November at the Byzantfest in Melbourne, Australia.

Tripkovic: You shot scenes in dozens of different locations. How difficult was it to reach and find accommodation in remote parts of Alaska?

Scionka: Getting to more remote parts of Alaska was a fun adventure. We took a number of small plane rides to reach certain locations. We would simply rent a private, four-seater Cessna and fly to different regions.

In some parts of Alaska, there are no hotels or Airbnb options. We had to rely on the hospitality of the people in local communities. Quite a few times, we had to stay in whatever accommodation was available in the villages, including an abandoned building that thankfully had running water and some mattresses.

Tripkovic: Scenes in “Sacred Alaska” reveal the beauty of the last frontier as well as the harsh living conditions. Did you intend to showcase the beauty of God’s creation while highlighting the resilience and faith of Native Alaskans who endure extreme weather conditions for the better part of the year?

Scionka: That is an accurate assessment of what we wanted to show in the film. Even in the midst of the harshness of winter, it’s quite beautiful, especially in terms of cinematography. The winter landscapes are stunning and beautiful.

But then, it’s hard. It’s difficult for people up there. You see their resilience. This is their place. This is their home. Sometimes people wonder why they don’t move somewhere where it’s a little easier to live. However, home and carrying on traditions matter. There’s a beauty in being able to embrace a simple way of life.

We saw people in these small, remote villages who have been serving for 40 or 50 years in local parishes. God has placed them there, and they have found ways to serve Him and love others in that place despite all the difficulties of living there. These priests and people are there to love, serve, and take care of others. That deeply impacted us as filmmakers.

Tripkovic: What were the main obstacles on your journey of working on “Sacred Alaska?”

Scionka: We really enjoyed making the film. We had wonderful and meaningful encounters with everyone we met. People took great care of us, and we felt loved and supported. We made a lot of lifelong friends up there. We were very inspired by what we encountered in the lives of folks living and serving in Alaska. Were there any challenges? Absolutely! One was a physical challenge. Filming in the cold was hard, and having the right gear was essential. Keeping yourself and your equipment from freezing while standing out in the middle of a frozen river – that’s definitely challenging. This gave us a taste of life out there.

It was actually quite difficult for us to plan from afar. We’re not locals, so we had to figure out how things work in these communities. When you work on a project like this, you do a lot of what’s called preproduction planning. You make connections, book hotel rooms, and arrange transportation. None of that stuff worked in this case. We had to figure out all these things as we went. From a typical production planning standpoint, that was difficult. We just flew up there and arranged a lot of these things on the ground.

Tripkovic: What did you hope to achieve by directing this documentary?

Scionka: We wanted to make a beautiful film unto the glory of God that would inspire both Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox Christians in their pursuit of life and faith. We also wanted to answer the question: how can we live out our faith? We hope we could make a beautiful film that would inspire others by showing them the beauty and challenges of living in an environment in Alaska while following your Orthodox faith. This film might serve as an example to all of us on how to follow the path towards Christ that is before us.

Tripkovic: You are on the roadshow, screening “Sacred Alaska” across the country. What were the initial reactions of viewers?

Scionka: The initial reactions have been very positive. We’re very encouraged. People are deeply moved by the film. Some have said they teared up at a number of moments in the film. They’re very inspired by it. Some viewers told me that they loved the way we portrayed the beauty of simple life. I think that really has resonated with people.

Tripkovic: How did this project change you as a person emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually?

Scionka: Working on this film deeply impacted my life. I felt I encountered deep spirituality in my interactions with people in Alaska. Very often, we chase after accomplishments and successes, yet we’re left feeling discontent. We believe our lives would be better if we moved somewhere else. We always yearn for something different, leading to a lack of contentment.

What I encountered up there was that it would be hard for me to live in some of those villages. It would be a hard life to live and serve in remote areas of Alaska. I was deeply inspired by the lives of the people who live there. All of them told me that this is their home, this is what their life is like, and this is the path that God has set before us.

This project and the time spent in Alaska taught me that we complicate things. Maybe we need life to be a little simpler sometimes. I think some of these ideas in the film have really resonated with me. They have impacted me deeply both in spiritual and physical realms. Working on this film showed me how to strive to live my life and to see what God has placed before me, and to follow that path.

Tripkovic: Your film explores how Native Alaskans incorporated Orthodox Christianity with their indigenous beliefs and culture. What would you say is the most interesting example of that fusion?

Scionka: Broadly speaking, it’s their ability to relate, to connect with nature, and the idea of practicing stillness. Stillness is sort of like a spiritual virtue for them, it’s like second nature. If you’re going to be in the wilderness, you need to learn how to be quiet. You need to know how to be still if you’re hunting animals. Native Alaskans always sort of see the presence of the divine, the presence of God, the Creator, in animals, nature, and other human beings.

There are so many overlaps between indigenous beliefs and values and Orthodox Christianity. Father Oleksa gives a nice example in the film. At the Feast of Theophany, Orthodox Christians take the cross and put it in the water to bless the water. Well, Native Alaskans did something similar around the same time of the year. In the winter, they would cut a hole in the ice and put leftover parts of the animal that they couldn’t use or consume back into the water. This was their act of gratitude and respect for the animal, putting it back into the water.

I am able to see that there’s this spiritual connection among us all in creation. You could attach these Christian ideas to various cultural practices. Orthodox priests often talk about baptizing cultural ideas and making them Christian. We understand that there is, in human nature, a longing and desire for things that are eternal. We desire things that connect us to God and that are beyond our transient physical realm. From the Christian worldview, we believe that it’s all true because of Christianity. It doesn’t mean that other cultures don’t encounter those things.

Tripkovic: What is the role of Orthodox Christianity in the daily lives of Native Alaskans?

Scionka: The best example of how they live their life is through hunting and their food. They see it all as a gift from God. When they go to pick berries, they make the sign of the cross and thank God. When they go out fishing, they don’t say that they are going out to get their fish. They think of fish, in this case, as something provided by God.

Because God provides, they feel that they have to give to others. If they don’t give to others, they won’t have for themselves. This is the best example of the Christian principle of gratitude and respect. The way they incorporate their faith even into the way they hunt and fish, and share all their food with many people in the villages, was very inspiring.

Tripkovic: How can Orthodox Christianity contribute to combating the opioid crisis in Alaska?

Scionka: Orthodox priests in the villages care deeply about their communities and work hard to encourage people to stay away from drugs, alcohol, and other things that destroy life. Suicides, overdoses, or driving boats while intoxicated happen up there, and it’s devastating to a community. They talk about it in the film.

The Church is our hospital and safe haven. It is the place where, as one of the priests says, you are welcome no matter what you may have done. They really want the Orthodox Church and the Orthodox faith to be that place – the place people turn to when they are in trouble, hurting, and struggling. It’s where they come for healing, help, love, comfort, confession, and to come back to God. Orthodox Christianity offers a path back to God, healing, and comfort, as you can see in the villages in Alaska.

Tripkovic: Your documentary tells the stories of the lives of saints: Father Herman, Bishop Innocent, Father Yakov, the first Native Alaskan to be ordained to the priesthood. Recently, Matushka Olga was canonized as a saint. How did that make you feel? Do you believe that your work in Alaska has only just begun?

Scionka: I was overjoyed. We love Matushka Olga. In my church community here in Colorado Springs, we were doing new iconography. We preemptively included Matushka Olga among the female saints in our church. There are many similar cases across North America, with a lot of hope and anticipation surrounding her canonization.

There was a lot of hope and anticipation for her canonization. A snippet of her story is in our film. After we finished the film, her official canonization was announced. I was asked if I would change some things in the film because she was canonized. I said no because the story remains the same. We all knew she is a saint. The Church is now just making it official, but everyone up there already knew.

Her canonization opens up the opportunity to maybe tell more stories about her and Alaska. God willing, I would love that.

Tripkovic: What do you think Alaskan Orthodox Christianity has to offer to global Orthodoxy?

Scionka: There’s a beautiful example of how to live our Orthodox faith in the villages in Alaska. I think it can serve us here in the lower 48, but also it can serve Orthodox Christians around the world. We’re one church body as the Orthodox worldwide. We can have these really unique expressions of it, amidst our own cultural experiences and the way we live our lives.

Tripkovic: Not to forget, is “Sacred Alaska” available on any major platforms such as Vimeo and YouTube?

Scionka: No, not yet. We are in both an exciting but challenging middle ground of releasing a film. We don’t have to do theatrical releases, but we really want to do it because we think it’s an exciting opportunity for communities to host a screening in their area. Right now, the only way to really see the film is by hosting a local event in your community.