Joshua Albeza Branstetter is a Filipino-American filmmaker and photographer living in Anchorage, Alaska. He has received international acclaim for his documentary work, including Pinguat, chronicling the return of a 150-year-old Alutiiq headdress from France to its ancestral home in Kodiak, Alaska. In 2020, he was awarded a Rasmuson fellowship for his ongoing work with Absolute Zero, a multi-disciplinary arts project creating a platform for survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence throughout Alaska.
At Careline, we want Alaskans to know that we are not only a suicide prevention hotline, that we are a someone-to-talk-to hotline as well. We want Alaskans to reach out to us to talk whenever they need help or someone to talk to. There are many barriers to reaching out, including many internal barriers. What would you say to someone who needs help and someone to talk to but may not like the idea of reaching out to ask for help?
I get scared, too, of being open with people. It’s a vulnerable thing. I don’t want people to know I’m struggling. I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing (or too much), and I don’t want to be a burden. But we’re all struggling right now, and we all know we’re all struggling. I feel like it’s never been more acceptable to say, “Hey, I really do need someone to just be there for me.” Because for the first time in a long time, all of humanity is going through the same, specific, shared experience. I need someone. You need someone. I get it. No one’s going to judge you.
No one is an island, we all need someone.
Alaska can be a challenging place to live. What are some things you do to cope and thrive in our unique Alaskan environment?
We do have unique challenges up here, and as if it wasn’t challenging enough the pandemic certainly exacerbated things. I love filmmaking, I love photography, I love telling stories. I find it satisfying, and Alaska is full of incredible stories and incredible storytellers. Filmmaking has been especially challenging over the last year, with Covid guidelines, but we’ve found ways to adapt. I setup a backdrop and lights and setup a little creative space in my garage so I could engage that part of my brain while film projects were shutdown during the quarantine. Even when we did shoot projects post-quarantine, we had to find creative workarounds like shooting via Zoom or having people contribute their portions via phone videos. I love making movies. It’s the most fulfilling thing in the world, so we just find ways to adapt.
Even though things are opening up now and returning to some semblance of normality – we’re shooting a narrative short film in May – I still have that space in my garage, and I’ve been using it to show my kids how to work the cameras, how to setup the lights, and we’re making movies together. I’m thankful for that, I want to connect with my kids better.
During a time of great uncertainty and turmoil and transition, what gives you hope right now? And what makes you proud?
I’ve seen my community come together. So much has been required of all of us this last year, whether in tackling the pandemic or uniting against injustice and racism in our society. I’ve seen thousands peacefully march through the streets of Anchorage for Black lives. I’ve seen young Asian-Americans escorting their elders to protect them and let them know just how priceless our elders are to us. I’ve seen those at a lower-risk pickup groceries and run errands for our immune-compromised neighbors who can’t risk interaction with the wider community. I believe most people care, and I’ve seen more to affirm that hope than not.
I’ve seen my community come together. So much has been required of all of us this last year, whether in tackling the pandemic or uniting against injustice and racism in our society.J. Branstetter
During difficult times, is there a mantra or some sort of touchstone that you return to? Something that gives you strength or offers perspective during challenging times?
When I was a kid, I used to become overwrought with anxiety over exams, book reports, class projects, etc. I’d look at my calendar and dread how summer or winter break was just around the corner, but it didn’t matter because my 12-page book report on The Great Gatsby was going to murder me first. It was crippling. But you know what? The reports came and went, and life just kept going on. After a while I started focusing on the holiday I was excited for, a new game or movie that I couldn’t wait to check out, and told myself that however many pages I had to ever-so-slightly fidget with the margins on, this too shall pass, and spring break will come.
Many of us have experienced trauma in our lives. The path to healing looks different and follows a different timeline for every one. Would you feel comfortable sharing a story of healing or recovery from your own life?
I don’t feel comfortable describing it in full detail, but last year, after finding solidarity with others who had also experienced it, I confronted my abuser. It’d been over a decade-and-a-half since it happened. I took a lot of those years reconciling that it wasn’t okay, that it wasn’t my burden to bear, that I deserved reconciliation and accountability. Some of the people I spoke to had more recent experiences, some recounted stories even older than mine . Having others to find strength in went a long way towards facing it, but also helped me realize that there wasn’t an expiration date on coming to terms with the trauma I experienced. We are all on our own journey of healing, and we can take as long as we need to get there. It took me more than 15 years, and that was okay.
We are all on our own journey of healing, and we can take as long as we need to get there. It took me more than 15 years, and that was okay.J. Branstetter
Looking back on times of acute stress and crisis in your life, what advice would you give yourself?
Tell them when you’re in a bad place. Don’t try to bottle it up; because you’ll just end up projecting it onto those closest to you, and they don’t deserve that.
Feeling joyful can seem complicated after times of crisis. What are some ways that you have let joy back into your life?
I do miss catching movies screening at odd hours so I can have the whole theatre to myself. With theatres shut down I’ve had to settle for doing that at home, but it works. I’ve been watching a lot of horror movies lately. I find it therapeutic. Weird. I know. I watched Possessor. It was intense. But. There was a scene where the protagonist rehearsed what they were going to say to their husband and child when they walked through the front door, because they’d become a misanthrope. Annnd I kinda felt seen. I’ve kind of forgotten how to human, and it was nice to know I wasn’t alone. That movie is seriously a hard R though. They must’ve spent half the budget on corn syrup and red dye. You’ve been warned.
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