Spirit Being Dialogue - by Floyd Favel
There are some films that stay with us forever, the characters alive within us, like spirit beings. Years ago, I watched a film by Kurosawa, called Dersu Uzala, the main characters being a Russian surveyor on an expedition to the Russian Far East, and an indigenous Goldi hunter, Dersu, that he meets by happenstance and then employs as a guide. The dialogue between these two characters - one an educated European man and the other a complex man of the forest - became mine as I made my way from the reserve and urban ghettoes of Saskatchewan, and through the theatres and books of a European civilization. The relationship between the Russian and the Goldi lived within me as a tension between intellect and spirit, progress and tradition, city and the forest.
I watched this film as a young artist - so many years ago it seems. I did not encounter these characters again in any other films, until recently when I viewed the new Kunuk/Cohn film, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Here once again, we meet the man of science in dialogue with an indigenous person, in this case, an Inuit shaman. This moment in life seems to be framed at one end by a film, the other ends by another film, separated by twenty years.
In The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, the ethnographer Knud Rasmussen encounters the Inuit shaman Aua. The purpose of Rasmussen's expedition is to record as much as possible the traditions of the Inuit before they disappeared. One cold day they encounter Aua and his wild fierce party filled with life and vitality. The presence of Aua emanates from the pages of Rasmussen. Like an oracle, or a stone which speaks of the mysterious and creative relationship between humanity and nature, the words of Aua remind us of the passion and fragility of human life, that we are not rational masters of the universe. His words open us up to allow our soul to become itself once again, as if we have been lost and found again.
Rasmussen encounters Aua and his party just at the moment when their traditional beliefs are being replaced by Christianity, and this is a dramatic moment in the lives of the Inuit. Each person seems to hold the fate of their soul and the world in their hands. Today, faith does not seem to play a major role in our lives as we seem to no longer depend on nature for survival - to depend on nature demands, skill, luck and faith.
I remember an old shaman telling me of the day he decided to convert to Christianity. He threw his rattle into the bush and the next day his rattle sat on the doorstep of his log cabin. He got the message and did not abandon his beliefs. It is this man's son who now holds all of his secrets, a man who lives alone in the forests of northern Saskatchewan. We went together once to a Pow Wow, and he said, 'Nephew, I would never have believed this, the elders used to say that soon all you will hear all around you is the English language, there will only be little islands of Cree. When this happens know that the world will change and it is not good. Nephew, I have seen this today.' And he wept.
I think it is people like him, like Dursu, and Aua, who have kept the world from slipping into peril. The less there are of them, the greater the peril. They are like the 40 just men of the Hassidim, men who live hidden in the world, but on whom the salvation of the world depends.
The world will not end once, but will end many times. As the forests die, the ice caps melts and rivers dry up, the languages and cultures of this area die, and with them a whole world view. No one knows when the world will end, not even the animals know this, the old Cree people say.
Faith, like belief, is not a satisfactory word to capture the complexity of shamanism - shamanism has more to do with direct contact with the spirit powers of the universe and the human soul and its tragedy. It is a desperate search for meaning, beyond being morally good or bad, but is a search which drives you deep into the tundra or the forest, to fast and pray for understanding. To ask why? Why must people be ill and suffer pain?
Why must we die?
Questions Aua asked himself in the lonely solitude of the tundra.
We cannot possess knowledge. To attempt to capture knowledge thru journals or films is nearly impossible.
In Dersu Uzala, the Russian brings Dersu home to live with him and his wife and child in the city. It is a cultured life of books, science and houses. Dersu spends his days despondently sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the stove, watching the flames of the fire through the grating. You can imagine what would have happened if Rasmussen brought Aua home to live with him in Denmark.
This is what happens I think when we place shamanism on the screen or written page. We are filled with grief and longing. Either we are the man in the front of the stove looking at the fire, remembering, or the man in front of the stove is the film or the written word. Looking longingly at the fire trapped behind the iron grating. There is hope though, hope is the fire, and that is the possibility. Perhaps it is this hope that allows our soul to turn backwards to the past, and to bring the past forward through our art.
It is important that these stories, from Kunuk/Cohn and Kurosawa and others, come to the screen, filling us with hope and despair. Never before in the modern history of humanity have we faced the destruction of our world. It is less abrupt than a nuclear war, it is a slow insidious destruction of global warming of which we are a part of due to our enslavement to modern technology, and to the world view which thinks only of the immediate present.
Suddenly modern humanity realizes how dependent they are on nature. No, no, these films by Kurosawa, by Kunuk/Cohn are not simply tales of the march of civilization encountering the autochthonous cultures of the taiga and tundra, these films are about life itself and the limits of rationality.
Eventually Dersu leaves and goes back to the taiga and the Russian is left with a meaningful encounter, more meaningful than a romantic tryst in a foreign land, for he has been possessed by the words and songs of the land. Words that slowly work their magic upon his soul. Now he can only remember, and then the lens of the filmmaker captures this remembering, and through them we remember.
The spirit beings of the surveyor/ethnographer and the hunter/shaman keep up their perpetual eternal dialogue, a dialogue which has no resolution. It is this tension that keeps us searching and moving forward. We, a people who have been washed over by civilization, then out of the depths, a sound, then a word, a song or a film emerges.
And we survive...