3 October 2006 | Chris Knipp
Off-putting but deeply significant storytelling
Kunuk's 2001 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which won the Camera d'Or award at Cannes and was the first feature film ever made in the Inuit language, was a dramatization of a thousand-year-old tale of the nomadic seal-hunting clans of Alaska that tells of a vendetta and a purging of evil; it had the flavor of an ancient Scandinavian epic and was hauntingly harsh, remote, and violent but had fleeting elements of humor and an unmistakable sensuality. This new film is drawn from the same region and stars the same pool of actors from the local population but concerns events in the early 1920's described in Rasmussen's travel documents. He was a Dane with Inuit blood who spoke the language. He was a kind of anthropologist-adventurer. The journal of his fifth Thule Expedition across the Canadian Arctic recounts the information he gathered during a brief but uniquely significant encounter.
Rasmussen came with a trader, Peter Freuchen, and an anthropologist, Therkel Mathiassen. At this moment in 1922-23 he found a people in transition. The Inuit were being converted to Christianity, but were still at a stage when among some of their members the two ways still existed. His information is crucial, and of lively interest to modern-day Inuits, because once the Inuit were persuaded to cast out their spirits and give up shamanism their Christian leaders immediately forbade them even to speak of the old ways, declaring them to be the work of Satan. Rasmussen found men who still spoke of the old ways and sang the old songs. Kunuk and his close collaborator and cameraman Norman Cohn have brought this lore back to life. Like an ancient legend, this film (strictly speaking video, shot in HD 24P) like its predecessor preserves the record of a culture.
Cohn and Kunuk have worked together on a number of short videos for years. They and elder Pauloosie Quilitalik and the late Paul Apak developed a style of "relived" cultural drama, "combining the authenticity of modern video with the ancient art of Inuit storytelling." Both features are best understood as interfaces of events and their retelling.
As the film begins, the great shaman, Avva (Pakak Innuksuk)and his family are living on the land some distance from Iglulik, his home community, which has taken up the teachings of Christian missionaries. Rasumssen comes with Freuchen and Mathiassen. They hear and record the life stories of Avva and his wife Orulu. Their son Natar impulsively agrees to guide Freuchen and Mathiassen north to Iglulik. In the last part of the film Avva and his clan make a terribly difficult journey toward home, facing strong headwinds and conditions that almost starve them. Ultimately Avva will abandon his ancient spirits, and they will wander off, wailing, as the evil spirits wandered off at the end of Atanarjuat. But along the way, individuals will be important, notably Avva's strong-minded daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik), who still has sex with her dead husband and will have nothing to do with her new one.
The essence of Kunuk-Cohn's collaboration is that their projects come out of and go back to their indigenous sources. It makes little sense to talk about how "authentic" the film is. The actors are playing their grandparents. The target audience is the small community of Iglulik from which these films and the cast have come. There is no competition. Kunuk was an artist with a little education who sold sculptures in Montreal in the early Eighties to buy a camera. He was going to take still pictures. Instead he went into video. There was no television or video where he came from. He brought it back. His aim was to film his father. He still seeks to preserve the culture of his people. Norman Cohn was a widely exhibited video artist who has worked with Kunuk since the Nineties and now is closely associated with Iglulik and divides his time between there and Montreal. This film is a Danish co-feature with Danish actors playing the explorer-visitors' roles.
In the early scene where Avva introduces his family members to the Danes I felt like a visitor, lost in a strange language. That is how both Kunuk's features feel. It takes at least half an hour to acclimate oneself and begin to fall into the rhythm of different ways. It's also true that this film is less exciting than the previous one in narrative terms. It lacks quite the level of physical action. It is primarily a story about storytelling, about receiving information. But it also has moments of plangent grief and shock as Christians appear and men give up their spirits, give up the culture of 4,000 years, as Cohn described it in an interview, to follow "Ten Commandments," as if to imply those Ten could hardly replace a whole culture rich in survival strategies. Young people, he and Kunuk say, are again at a transitional stage. They have given up Christian practice and are welcoming back the old ideas and ways.
Anyway, whether you find the storytelling technique of these films compelling or simply off-putting, they are unique cinematic documents of the endangered culture of a people who have lived successfully for millennia in the harshest conditions on earth. It would be hard to justify not including this film as one of the New York Film Festival's selective list for 2006.