YAKIMA, Wash. — Cory Mann didn’t set out to be a documentary filmmaker.
“I wanted to be a movie star,” he says in the same half-serious, half-joking candor that runs throughout “Smokin’ Fish,” an endearingly quirky film — yes, a documentary — that will bring him to the Yakima Valley Community College campus Thursday for a screening.
It’s very possible you’ve already seen “Smokin’ Fish” — or, at least, had the opportunity. Since its completion in 2011, the 81-minute film has been broadcast numerous times on PBS, a grant from which provided a portion of the production funding. It has been screened at film festivals and cultural events large and small around the world, from Mann’s Alaskan hometown of Juneau to as far as Amsterdam and Honolulu. Not long after his brief stay in Yakima this week, Mann will be packing up to head to screenings in Sweden and Finland.
Not bad for a guy who really just wanted to make a film for the surviving five of the seven women who raised him.
“It was basically kind of made for them,” the 43-year-old Mann says. “To be totally selfish about it, it wasn’t meant to share with the world. And it just kind of took on its own momentum.”
Mann and a longtime friend, Luke Griswold-Tergis, 35, had long talked about making a film about the tribal fishing customs of the Tlingit people of southeastern Alaska. Following the death of Mann’s grandmother — who Mann calls “an inspiration for the film” — they decided it was about time.
Two years into the project PBS put up a $150,000 grant to aid the production, “and we realized it was something larger than just a movie for my family,” Mann says. These days, he adds, “There’s not a day that goes by that people don’t contact me and say, ‘This is amazing. Thank you.’ ”
Himself a cultural anomaly, born to a Tlingit tribal mother and a white father, Mann served as both the co-director (along with Griswold-Tergis) and as the on-camera protagonist. His self-effacing sense of humor is a constant throughout the film, as is the sage cultural insights of his aunt, Sally Burattin — one of those seven women who raised him.
At the heart of “Smokin’ Fish” is the annual trip to fish camp at the Tlingit village of Klukwan, a significant gathering place for the tribe’s various clans. There, fishing customs — with the occasional modern adjustment, such as canoes made of fiberglass, not dug-out cedar — are the same as they’ve been for thousands of years.
A short film accompanying Thursday’s showing of “Smokin’ Fish” will celebrate a return to tradition of another sort — the return of the sockeye salmon to the Yakima River Basin. Filmmaker Emily Washines, a Yakama Nation member, will be on hand for the screening of her “100 Years Ago and Today: Sockeye in Cle Elum.”