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Atanarjuat (Zacharias Kunuk, 2001)
“A man who’s serious about killing would keep it to himself.”
I’ll just get this out of the way now: the most exciting film movement of our era is coming out of Nunavut, Canada. Right? Right.
A couple of decades ago, Inuk filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk despaired of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation’s south-centric focus, so he quit and went back home. Home was Igloolik, a small, almost entirely Inuit town wracked with depression and teen suicide. Kunuk set up a production company called Isuma, and set to work.
After years of shorts, documentaries and a brilliant TV series, Kunuk eventually set about making the epic Atanarjuat. Atanarjuat is a game-changer. People always use the term ‘game-changer’ without really referring to any games or changes, but here it’s appropriate. The story, from an Inuit myth, was taken from the local elders. The cast and crew were town residents. The catering team were hunters who scouted for seal during the shoot. To make the film, Kunuk put Igloolik to work.
Isuma have continued the trend since, rounding off Atanarjuat with an informal trilogy, and launching a project on Inuit knowledge and climate change. Nunavut struggles for every bit of funding that comes its way, but Kunuk’s company have helped shine a light. Those teens are given an inspiring, community-led example of creative and enterprising employment. Anyway that’s enough about the revolutionary economics of community cinema. What about the film itself?
Appropriately enough, it’s incredible. The aesthetic is unlike anything else, simply because it comes from environmental necessity. Kunuk had to use digital cameras, because the cold would have broken film. Close-ups have to be used in an igloo, because there’s no space to back up. A key scene in which the hero escapes his pursuers by running across an ice sheet naked is jaw-dropping, because…it’s someone running across an ice sheet, naked. The film’s sense of proximity and tangibility reclaims the ethnographic gaze that has dominated Inuit representation on film for a century. Some reviews even confusedly reported the film as a documentary (which, for all it illustrates of traditional Inuit life, it may as well be).
Oh, and by the way, you can watch the film - and EVERYTHING ELSE ISUMA HAVE EVER MADE - on their website for free. But I guess they just knocked that up in an afternoon, because they also gave us an online portal for indigenous film across the entire world. To be honest, I could go on and on about how amazing Isuma are. Fortunately for you, here’s a whole academic essay I made earlier. They are the frontline of revolutionary 21st century cinema. DO. NOT. SLEEP. ON. THEM.
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Independent Inuit film production, most prominently from the island town Igloolik, is a distinctive cinematic movement characterized by its rootedness in local environment. Its significance is marked not only by the sheer quantity relative to population but also that Inuit representation has been historically determined by southern non-Inuit. Faye Ginsburg argues that this allows not only the films themselves but also the fact of self-representation to challenge the dominant discourse of technology and culture. The particular dynamics of Inuit cinema therefore enable it to instance both separation from and opposition to mainstream industrial and state hierarchies. The movement’s position thus inherits much from the Third Cinema movement, with its opposition to hegemony, and the emerging ‘Fourth Cinema’ that shares the fact of indigenous-controlled production rather than a coherent set of aesthetic or political goals.
Inuit representation was for a long time the exclusive territory of ethnographic documentaries, most notoriously in Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922), but also in myriad films produced by the National Film Board (NFB) ranging in political engagement and understanding. Dutch filmmaker Co Hoedeman produced a series of culturally sensitive ‘Eskimo Legend’ animations using seal-skin puppets and traditional ajaja singing. John Feeney’s Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak (1963) examined the transformations of Inuit art in the twentieth century by focusing on the prominent artist Kenjouak Ashevak. However, her words are still written and spoken in English by non-Inuit authors. Despite the vast range of films produced to explore Inuit culture, for a long time the conditions of production were controlled wholly by Qallunaat (non-Inuit) filmmakers.
The first significant Inuk director was Mosha Michael, whose NFB films include Asivaqtiin (1977), a short documentary following a hunting group from the Frosher Bay Correctional Facility. The director narrates the events with a simple, expositional style that reappropriates the ethnographic gaze upon everyday Inuit life. Michael articulates his subject with a self-reflexivity that Jerry White argues has since grown into a defining feature of Canadian indigenous cinema. The address of the film is direct yet contextualized in traditional Inuit culture. Images of animal carcasses are stripped of their gory associations (for southern audiences) and re-signified within the context of the place, where they are seen instead as vital components of a rich hunting tradition. In a striking example of the immediacy and self-reflexivity of Inuit aesthetics, Michael films gathered berries held in his left hand with a camera he holds in his right. This film, among others, established a style of close, instructional documentation of Inuit knowledge and cultural practice. Here I’ll be examining how this documentary tendency has developed and grown into a specifically Inuit aesthetic, tied inextricably to particular place, community and culture.
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When you are videotaping people and just following them, it’s interesting.