CIRI Spotlight: Savanah Wiltfong

“My name is Savanah Wiltfong, 15 years old, and I’m a soon-to-be sophomore at Eagle River High School. I am one-eighth Yup’ik Eskimo with Norwegian, German and a smidge of British.”

Oh, yes, and she’s also the star of a new movie, “Dear Lemon Lima,” a family/comedy feature film written and directed by Suzi Yoonessi. Shot in Seattle, the film story takes place in Fairbanks and features the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.

The movie is about a teenage girl named Vanessa Lemor who is half-Yup’ik, told from her point of view. She is experiencing heartbreak as a result of her narcissistic boyfriend and then discovers friendship at a private prep school in Fairbanks.

Wiltfong, daughter of CIRI shareholder Wendy Wiltfong and Chad Wiltfong, was cast in the leading role of Vanessa. Finding a 14-year-old Alaska Native girl in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle proved to be fruitless. When Wiltfong, who had no movie experience, answered the online casting call, she was selected after only a few rounds of auditions.

“Suzi opened the door for my acting career, she believed in me and allowed me to see how much fun it is and experience it,” Savanah Wiltfong said, adding that she considers Yoonessi to be her mentor.

Savanah, a CIRI descendant, said drama is one of her favorite subjects, but she’s also learned to appreciate English in the last year. The people who have had the most impact on her life are her family, including her parents, little brother Crew and her grandmother Margaret. Savanah said her movie experience began as a result of an email her Aunt Roberta Webb, who works at the Alaska Native Medical Center, sent to her mother to notify her of the audition.

“We sent a family photo to Suzi. She wrote back that she’d like to see me read. We set up a camera using a ladder as the tripod, and my mom read with me, then posted the scene on YouTube,” Savanah said, noting that led to being invited to the Open Audition.

“Following that, Suzi called my mom about a week later and invited me to work with her in Seattle for a few days.

Wendy Wiltfong said her first reaction was one of hesitation. But she said she appreciated the fact that the movie has an Alaska Native focus. She is amazed that her daughter has just gone through the experience of being in a major motion picture. “She worked so hard, put in so many hours when I knew she was physically exhausted,” she said. “I was proud of her and the hard work she did.”

“What a wonderful opportunity for Alaska Natives and Alaska. It’s touching to see. Suzi Yoonessi went out of her way to ensure authenticity. The kuspuk and headdress Savanah wears is her Aunty Roberta’s.”

Wiltfong also noted that the film crew brought in Phillip Blanchett of Pamyua to choreograph Savanah’s Yup’ik dance and create the song she would dance to. “He was amazing and helped Savanah discover her inner Yup’ik dancer.”

The movie is meant to be entertaining, but Savanah also believes its message may inspire people.

Asked what advice she would offer to her peers, she said she would encourage young people to pursue any opportunity that presents itself. “Throw yourself head-first into it. Even if you don’t succeed it will still be an adventure. And, there’s always next time, but at least you know you did your best.”

More information on the movie and its cast can be found at the website, as well as Savanah Wiltfong’s Facebook page.