A documentary film about Whittier, Alaska. Production is slated to begin in the spring of 2011, with the bulk of filming to take place on location in October 2011 - February 2012. Click on either of the links below to see a teaser for the film shot on location:

POW  -  4 minute version

POW - 6.5 minute version

PRISONERS OF WHITTIER was selected to participate in the Independent Feature Project's Spotlight on Documentaries 2010!


Whittier, Alaska is nestled on the shore of Prince William Sound, two hours South of Anchorage. But, the incredibly picturesque setting belies just how odd Whittier is, even by Alaska’s standards.

The only way in and out of Whittier is a single lane one-way tunnel that changes direction every half hour. The tunnel closes at 10 PM each night, locking everyone in for the night. No exceptions.

Of the 200 people that live year-round in Whittier, 180 of them live in a single 14-story apartment building. Winter starts in early October and rages on for seven months of near-total darkness and an average 9 feet of snow at -20 F with winds gusting up to 80 MPH. Most residents of the Tower don’t venture outside until the 2-story high snow drifts have dissipated in the spring.

So, what happens when you have 180 people cooped up in an apartment building in the middle of nowhere for seven months?

Prisoners of Whittier will be an in-depth look at the town and its residents over the course of a year. We will start in spring, when the seasonal workers and cruise ship passengers turn Whittier into a bustling tourist town. As the days get shorter and the population dwindles to the hardy few that call Whittier their full time residence, we will join them inside the Tower for the longest winter imaginable.

Whittier was founded by the US Military during the Cold War, when it mattered what was happening on the frozen Soviet tundra across the Bering Straits. The Military only lasted about ten years in Whittier; the shell of their installation is now a hulking gray ruin on Whittier’s abbreviated skyline. Since the Military’s departure, Whittier has been home to a handful of fishermen, railroad workers and a few people who service and work on the cruise ships that regularly depart from its shores in Summer. Few of the tourists that leave from Whittier ever set foot in the town; most arrive on a bus from Anchorage and are whisked into the climate-controlled bowels of their ship.

Narrated by the iconoclastic Reindeer Lady and several other equally entertaining residents, Prisoners of Whittier promises to be a refreshing look at one of America’s oddest communities. With a basement full of frozen food, a police precinct, and a supermarket and pharmacy that are accessible via underground tunnels, some residents never bother changing out of their pajamas.

Welcome to Whittier. Enjoy your stay.

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Bari Pearlman                  DIRECTOR                    

Joseph Pierson                PRODUCER                    

Tim Bohn                       PRODUCER

Laela Kilbourn                 DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY

Alex Albanese                 EDITOR                        

Richard Gin                     FIELD RECORDIST

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I first visited Whittier during a vacation in Alaska a couple of years ago; I had booked a cruise on Prince William Sound, and Whittier was our port of departure. After dropping off our luggage at the ship, the cruise director announced that we would have a brief tour of Whittier while our staterooms were being prepared. A local resident boarded the bus to narrate the tour. Almost immediately we passed the Reindeer Lady’s house. And, yes, she has pet reindeer that she walks through town. Next stop was the Tower, the apartment building where most residents live. I was struck by how curious and unusual it is for a tiny town in the middle of nowhere to have an apartment building. The rest of the tour was highlighted by boats on blocks, some derelict trucks, and not much else.

At the conclusion of the tour, I looked out the window and saw a woman wearing a P.O.W. sweatshirt. I thought, “What a sad story that must be...” until she turned around and I saw “Prisoner of Whittier” emblazoned on the front of her shirt. If there was a single moment that inspired me to make a documentary about Whittier, Alaska, that was it. That woman’s sweatshirt made me think about what it must be like for this eclectic group of people to spend the harsh, interminable Alaska winter all crammed together in a single high-rise.

We think of Alaska as a lonely place, with bears and elk and miles of barren tundra. For that wild landscape to be punctuated by an apartment building, with all of the forced intimacy of an Upper West Side co-op, is a pleasingly absurd notion, and certainly one that invites exploration.

- Joseph Pierson

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