National Geographic gets cold reception from Old Believers

• Press kicked out of casting call
By Naomi Klouda
Homer Tribune

Russian Old Believer church at Nikolaevsk Homer Tribune file photo

When a pair of directors from the National Geographic reality-series visited the Old Believer village of Nikolaevsk Tuesday evening, only about a dozen people attended. Word had gone out that even though it is the National Geographic Channel, the producers’ aim may be to sensationalize Old Believer lives as had been done with another religious group, the Hutterites of Montana.
Nikolaevsk, population just under 350 according to the last census count, sits at a high elevation on North Fork Road between Homer and Anchor Point. It is a private Old Believer village established in 1967. The travels of the group from Russia, as well as the story of the founding of Nikolaevsk, is told in a 1972 article in National Geographic.
Two of those in attendance at the Nikolaevsk school during the casting call, one who works at the Homer Tribune and one covering the event for the Homer News, were asked to leave the meeting early on.
Sam Kuzmin, raised in Nikolaevsk, is the Homer Tribune’s designer.
“They said they don’t want the press there – they wanted the casting call to be more intimate without the press,” Kuzmin said. “They wanted it to be confidential, talking to them, which makes no sense for me to leave, because half of them were my family.”
Lisa Blake, one of National Geographic’s producers, had given interviews to the media while still in New York City and planning her trip to Homer. She put out an announcement for Russian Old Believers to attend the casting call and wanted news accounts to explain plans for the show’s series. It is to run for three seasons and the intention, Blake said, is to tell the Old Believers’ stories while being respectful of their beliefs.
Homer has four primary villages, all located in remote ares: Kachemak-Selo, Voznesenka, and Razdolna are located 25 miles down East End Road overlooking the Fox River Valley and the hat flats that long served cattlemen in the region. The fourth village is Nikolaevsk. Blake sees Homer as something of a “hub” for Old Believers.
“We’re looking for families with big personalities and an interesting story to tell. There’s no preconceived story line – it is documentary style. We are not creating anything; it is simply to learn about and explore the people in Homer,” Blake said at the time.

Kira Tipikin

The idea came from National Geographic Channel research from New York City. The show would follow the format of depicting other private religious communities that National Geo did in the past on the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites, Blake said.
“Because it’s National Geographic, our approach is very respectful – this is not Jersey Shore. The National Geographic Society would never let that happen,” Blake said.
But according to Maryland-based journalist Alan Mairson, who has posted the complaints made by the Hutterites about their reportedly shoddy treatment by National Geographic, that’s what might lie ahead for the Russian Old Believers.
He wrote a public letter to the residents of Homer warning that the Hutterites have filed complaints over their treatment with National Geographic Channel President David Lyle. As yet, they have received no apology and no response. Producers staged scenes that embarrassed and gave false impressions of the Hutterites, Mairson said.
There are other discrepancies as well.
“Every TV production has a ‘show runner,’ who is the person in charge. The dictator of the production. The show runner for National Geographic’s TV series about the Old Believers will be a guy named Jarrett Lambo. That’s why it’s troubling to discover that Jarrett Lambo was one of the producers of Jersey Shore.  
Why hire Jarrett Lambo if the production is to bear no resemblance to Jersey Shore,” he asks.
The post mistress of Nikolaevsk, Kira Tipikin, a member of the Old Believers, said the production team was asked about the Hutterites at the Tuesday night casting call.
“Those two said they never saw the show. We said well ‘You do work for National Geographic and that show aired.’ They said ‘We never seen it and never heard about it,’” Tipikin said. “They seemed to be more interested in us.”
Tipikin occupies a high profile position at the Nikolaevsk Post Office. She’s been filmed many times through the years, most recently by a group of California college students working on an assignment for which they will be graded, she said.
“They filmed me in the post office. I have a sewing machine set up and in my free time I pull out my sewing,” Tipikin explained. “They liked to watch what I do throughout the day. They like our dresses and clothing. I don’t mind if they take my picture.”
After attending the meeting with National Geographic, Tipikin said she isn’t opposed to the idea of interviewing for the show but she wants time to ponder the idea.
“I’m still thinking about the show, but I’m still not sure. They interviewed some people and will take that back to do the final call to see if that’s what they want to do.”
Of the dozen who attended Tuesday’s meeting, a few of them were non Russians who live among the Old Believers. National Geographic “interviewed them also,” Tipikin said.
“We asked them if they were expecting more people from the other Russian villages, since no one showed up from there. They said they would like like hear from them.”
A snow storm that blew in several inches and made driving hazardous hit Monday and Tuesday throughout the day.
National Geo Director Blake has not yet responded to questions from the Homer Tribune.

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Posted by on Jan 30th, 2013 and filed under Headline News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

6 Responses for “National Geographic gets cold reception from Old Believers”

  1. Dolores Holub says:

    I can appreciate the Old Believers of Nikolaevk being cautious about how they will be portrayed to an outside audience. If National Geographic proceeds with the show, I hope they treat them with the respect that they deserve.

  2. James Mason says:

    Who the Old Believers are is the Old Believers’ business. If they want to make a movie about who they are and how they live then they’ll do it. But no Alaskan should have to deal with outsiders interfering with their culture. It’s bad enough that rural and Native Alaska is reported to the world by people who’ve hardly been to the Bush. If Nat Geo’s Blake doesn’t want to talk to the press then there’s a real attitude problem afoot.

  3. Dean Cully says:

    The National Geographic Channel in the USA is a joint venture between National Geographic Television and Film, and Fox Cable Networks (according to Wikipedia).

    This is rather telling, considering my involvement with their production of “Alaska Wingmen” (notwithstanding the featured pilots who happened to be women… but who cares? Clichè rules the day) during the summer of 2010, wherein they seriously missed the point on how a Learjet flight crew (consisting of 2 pilots) works together for the safe and efficient operation of the airplane. In the end, considering how ridiculously they created high drama out of routine operations, I’m glad that my presence was shrouded in anonymity and almost completely ignored as the copilot of the featured air ambulance Learjet, saving me embarassment.

    It was clear that the producers were far more interested in personalities than in accuracy or documentary and educational portrayal, two concepts that are not antithetical to entertainment, as demonstrated by National Geographic television specials of yore. Of course, this is to be expected nowadays if a program is to attract shortened attention spans and advertising revenue, but the lack of attention to reality was not necessary–indeed, it missed a significant element of the human story they were presumably attempting to convey; that is, people working together as a team in a complex and demanding endeavor–instead, becoming a lazy, sadly hilarious but forgettable manufactured drama.

    What once was an assurance of documentary quality, the National Geographic imprimatur, is now little more than a brand name roulette wheel of “Reality”-TV production values; to the Old Believers I say, if you think you’re feeling lucky, let them in and hope you get a thoughtful and accurate portrayal, but the odds of getting something on the order of “Amish Mafia” or some other sensational pseudo-educational treatment from the sausage factory of television fare are considerable.

    • Alfred Green says:

      ***Dean, National Geographic is solely responsible for NatGeo’s content. Though FOXNews owns 67 percent of the channel, its involvement is limited to expertise on distribution, marketing, and ad sales.

  4. Dear National Geographic says:

    Dear National Geographic,
    Since the Old Believer community is not interested…How about a reality show about a small town City Council “Unethical Beasts” and the irate community they do not serve? Might be an interesting one, might also be a good example for other communities who need to take back their town from self interested (not really)public servants.

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