Documentary Film Leans on Oral History to Highlight the Serum Run

Dec 6, 2013

Fairbanks, AK - In 1925, the residents of Nome were facing one of the coldest winters in memory.  They were also facing a deadly outbreak of diphtheria and the local doctor had run out of medicine to treat the disease.  What followed was one of Alaska’s most famous sled dog runs.  The story itself has become Alaskan folklore, but there is little written on the Serum run.  A new documentary film leans on oral histories to tell the true story.  It premieres tonight in Anchorage. 

Thirty men and at least 150 sled dogs battled storms and life-threatening cold to relay diphtheria anti-toxin between Nenana and  Nome over five days back in 1925.  It’s a story New York based filmmaker Daniel Anker had never heard until two friends wrote a book. “The cousins Laney and Gay Salisbury wrote the book Cruelest Miles about the same story.  Their zeal about their work and their book really kind of rubbed off on me," says Anker. 

The annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race commemorates the Serum Run.  Statues and monuments across the country recognize the heroic effort of both dog and man.  There’s even the animated film, Balto, but Anker says despite all that, there’s always been something missing. “There’s a lot about the story that lives by oral history and oral history alone that is preserved in people’s memories and then for those that have passed away in their children’s understanding of the story has been passed down,” he says.

Anker set out to tell the story from an Alaskan point of view.   He tracked down historic photos, articles and footage, interviewed local historians and mushers.  He says the biggest challenge was locating the people who were alive when the Serum run took place. “Authenticity can only come from people who have some visceral connection to the story," says Anker.  "Either they were there at the time and can tell what it felt like to be there at the time.  Rather than information about the event, the can describe fears or concerns or general gestalt of a community at the moment that the Serum Run took place.”

None of the mushers who drove dog teams between Nenana and Nome 88 years ago are still alive today.  In fact, most of those people who witnessed the Serum Run are in their 90’s. By chance, Anker was given a telephone book for bush communities in Interior Alaska.  He says that’s when the story finally started to come together. “So, I made a great effort to try to find elders who would know the story either by knowing the participants directly or who were of that era in mushing and understand what life was like and could bring that out in a way I never could in writing narration.”

He argues says the Serum Run could easily have been forgotten, but it took place at a time when tales of adventure and the wilderness became somewhat mythical.  “So, the Serum Run was latched onto by all these editors in the lower 48 who had read adventure novels,” he says. "Those were stories like Nanook of the North, and other novels that romanticized life in the Far North.  All this cultural context made the story come to a boil.”

Icebound was funded in part by a grant from the Rasmussen Foundation.   Anker says a majority of the financing came from the National Endowment for the Humanities. “They give out three or four grants a year to filmmakers to preserve some piece of Americana,” he says. 

The Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance helped fund Anker’s travels in and out of remote Interior villages.  Anker is still using a crowd-sourcing website to raise up to 30-thousand dollars for distribution rights.  
“I’m still raising funds," admits Anker.  "I have to say, it’s been a hard slog.” He says he’s still working to track down the money to travel with his film to the Interior villages he visited during production.