Curt Madison is a filmmaker - or more correctly, a videomaker - who shoots what he knows. And what he knows is the lifestyle of those who live in rural Alaska.
His videotape documentaries focus on various facets of the natives who live in and around his home in Manley Hot Springs, observations in cinema-verite style of these people as they go about their day-to-day lives, which are wrapped up in longtime traditions, sometimes contrasting modern living.For example, "Songs in Minto Life," a half-hour examination of the use of music among the Mintos, shows how their songs are tied directly into their lives. They are songs about birth, death, various rituals and sometimes very simple activities most of us take for granted. They don't understand frivolous music made purely for entertainment.
Madison will show a program of his work at 8 p.m. Friday in the Salt Lake Art Center auditorium, 20 S. West Temple. Admission is $4. The program is presented by the Utah Media Center, with grants from the Utah Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
One of the more interesting aspects of Madison's work is that though he has lived among the Alaskan natives for some 17 years, he had never even been to Alaska before he graduated from college.
As a youngster Madison moved around quite a bit with his family, and when he graduated from Stanford University in 1971 he hitchhiked to Fairbanks, Alaska - virtually on a whim.
"I had a friend who wanted to go to Alaska, and it struck me that I didn't really know what I wanted to do. So I decided I might as well go north - as far north as I could go - with no conception of what the place was like at all."
And he's been there ever since.
Among his post-graduate jobs were journalist, photographer, teacher, hunter, trapper and various other occupations.
Fancying himself something of a modern-day adventurer, Madison spent his younger years just floating from experience to experience as he enjoyed rural Alaskan life.
Over the years he befriended the Alaskans in the area and they came to know and trust him. When he began making videos they were the natural subject. Since they trusted him they opened up and told him their stories, sang their songs and allowed him to follow their routines.
"Songs in Minto Life" includes a lengthy sequence where the Mintos slice up a moose, which is their main source of food. The grisly videotaped details may seem extreme to some, but it shows very specifically how the people live and what they must do to survive.
Madison says he also allows the people in the film to participate in making it, including his latest work, a narrative drama - "Tanana River Rat" - which he is in the process of completing, and which uses local people rather than professional actors.
As for Madison himself, he has no great aspirations beyond what he's doing, no illusions about becoming rich as a filmmaker, and he says he expects he'll live out his life in Manley Hot Springs.
And if he's not making videos, he'll be doing something else.