PO man's transformation profiled on PBS

Few in Port Orchard would describe the area as a bustling metropolis, but compared to a small village in the Canadian Yukon that boasts a total population of 250, that impression might change.

Just such a comparison is detailed in documentary airing this week on PBS as part of its P.O.V (point of view) series, which focuses on the reunion of a young man who grew up in Port Orchard then is reunited with his father after more than 20 years apart.

Called “Arctic Son,” the film documents what happens when Stanley Njootli, Jr., a 1998 South Kitsap High School graduate, moves up to the tiny village of Old Crow, where his father, Stanley Njootli, Sr., lives.

Director Andrew Walton, who filmed the men at various times over a four-year period, said the younger man moved up to live with his estranged father because he was struggling with alcohol and drugs, and not really moving beyond jobs at fast-food restaurants.

“He wasn’t living what you call a productive lifestyle, and his dad decided it was time for him to come up to Old Crow,” said Walton, explaining that as far as he could tell the father had not forced his son to move up with him, but instead said, “Here’s an opportunity for you to live a different kind of life — come up here and see whether or not you like it.”

Walton said Stan Sr. not only hunts and fishes in the traditional way of the Gwitchin, a First Nations tribe, but is very active in and concerned about preserving his ancestors’ way of life.

Although it is a simple and often harsh way of life, the elder Njootli hoped that something about the humble, respectful lifestyle would spark positive changes in his son.

And, according to Walton, the experience does change the younger man, though it was a gradual change.

“His father’s way of doing things was very much by example,” Walton said. “It was really up to him to kind of figure out what he wanted to do.”

Although Old Crow is technically a “dry town” which Walton said had no bar and only one general store, Stan Jr. does find some “homebrew” to drink and at first seems to not embrace his father’s way of life, but rather revert to his old ways.

But eventually, Walton said, the land and the skills he learns — hunting caribou, skinning rabbits and fishing — seep into the younger man, a change that is very evident when Stan Jr. returns to Port Orchard for a visit.

“There’s a scene in the film where he’s walking on the waterfront in Port Orchard, and he passes (Marina Park) and mentions that he used to sleep under that gazebo,” Walton said, explaining that Stan Jr. then says, “I wouldn’t mind being back in Old Crow right now, chopping wood.”

Walton said both men were very private and quietly philosophical about their lives, and that moment stood out as particularly poignant and revealing.

“He really admits something very personal — you can tell that he’s realizing, ‘Wow, I didn’t think I would miss (Old Crow) that much, and I kind of wish I were back there,’” Walton said, explaining that the changes in Stan Jr. are also evident when he visits old friends in Port Orchard and Tacoma, and it becomes clear that while he may not have completely outgrown them, there is a distance between them.

For his part, Walton said he feels “tremendously lucky” to have found the pair to film, and that they agreed to the project. He said he was following other storylines in the area, but the Njootlis’ story unfolded naturally into a compelling story that he wanted to present.

“They both have a very unique perspective on life, and it was interesting to me how similar they ended up being in the film,” he said. “It just kind of proves that there is something genetic that ties people together, and you don’t have to live with your parents your whole life (to be like them).”

Walton said he is also proud that he fought to keep the portrayal honest, and not make it more sensational or darker, as other networks had wanted.

“What I am most proud of is that this is a true documentary film — the story is allowed to unfold naturally, and is told all in their own words,” Walton said, explaining that he didn’t even find his subjects, they found him.

“It was really dumb luck,” he said. “Stan Sr. came up to my door one night and asked me what I was doing there, and I ended up asking him if he was willing to be filmed.”

And in what Walton says he thinks now may have been a test of how serious he was, Stan Sr. immediately invited him to go caribou hunting, which involved a six hour trek across the snow.

“I think that was his way of seeing if I was up there just to get a surface story or what,” he said. “Either way, it was brutal. I couldn’t walk the next day.”

“Arctic Son” premiered this week on Seattle’s PBS channel KCTS, and will be replayed on Aug. 27.

Walton said the film will also be released soon on DVD.

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