Without stories we are lost... - by Hugh Brody
The strangers from Greenland sit in the snow house of Avva, a shaman. Avva introduces his family to the visitors. The scene is tense, with silences that are awkward or watchful. Avva puffs on his pipe. One of the visitors, a European, Knud Rasmussen, breaks a silence by explaining himself: "I came here to hear your stories and your songs and to learn about your beliefs." Avva answers him: "We believe happy people should not worry about hidden things. Our spirits are offended if we think too much."
"I understand," says Rasmussen. He goes on to say a little about his plans - he will be heading on towards the lands of the Inuit of Baker Lake, but some of his party would like to go to Igloolik. Avva's son offers to take those who want to go to Igloolik. Avva's daughter, Apak, and his wife, Orulu, are uneasy. Something about a trip to Igloolik worries them. Avva says that he and his family do not work for white people, but allows that they are willing to help those who speak their language.
The camera reveals the eyes and minds of this scene with close-ups of faces in the half-light of the snowhouse. A soapstone lamp with a long wick fully alight is enough to make a glow that is soft, intimate, subtle. The warmth within the cold: one of the paradoxical wonders of Inuit life that filmmakers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn explore again and again in this film. But behind and beyond the soft appearances there is wariness and tension.
There are many other scenes in The Journals of Knud Rasmussen that have the same quality: a use of half light, intimacy and close camera work to weave the magic spells of wonderful filmmaking. I choose to write about this particular scene because it is where Avva and Rasmussen begin their own sharing of stories, which is the heart of the story that this film tells. And at the end of this scene Avva asks Rasmussen to sing a song in his language. 'Yes,' Rasmussen says, and in a quiet, tentative voice he begins to sing the opening words of an Italian aria. At first this is a touching moment: the southerner, the Qallunaaq doing his best to offer something of himself to his Inuit hosts.
Then another shot and the soundtrack changes. We are outside the snowhouse, in the bright light of an Arctic day. A group of young Inuit. The camera moves from face to face: such health and such beauty. They are smiling in a kind of fascinated delight. And Rasmussen's tentative singing has given way to the voice of Caruso. The aria swells, overwhelming all else with its irresistible kind of operatic feeling. The shot widens to reveal that the Inuit are watching Therkel Mathiassen, one of Rasmussen's Danish colleagues, as he sits on the snow, by the snowhouse, taking pieces of some delicacy from a plate. Caruso and the aria, with orchestral backing - symbol and epitome of European civilization - cover everything. In this soundscape, Mathiassen makes a gift of a piece of meat to Apak, who has joined the group, and shows her how to sprinkle some delicious flavouring that comes from the exotic south. Her face glows with pleasure. A gift of something so good, to someone so beautiful, and sustained, enriched, overwhelmed by the voice of Caruso and the music of Friedrich von Flotow. When the music stops and the soundtrack returns to the scene by the snowhouse, Mathiassen presents to Apak the container of flavouring. Her delight is so great that she has to turn and move away.
No sequence could better reveal the power of music in film. We see and hear an encounter between European opera and Inuit life, between high culture of the South and a parallel high culture of the North. Civilizations meet in this moment, and the one with the aria prevails - because in film, as in history, as Kunuk and Cohn so cleverly establish, opera and all that it represents is a strange and strangely irresistible power. There is a way in which The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is built around musical encounters, and embodies a battle of songs. There are two moments in the film when Caruso's voice is a protagonist, but the flow of the story is marked by other kinds of singing.
Avva and his family sing what are often known as Inuit ai-ai songs - the ai-ai refers to the way in which lines often end or flow into a succession of vowel sounds giving rhythm and music instead of words that have meanings. These are songs that express joy, tell a part of a story or invoke spirits. They come from deep in Inuit heritage and from the heart of shamanic culture. Avva has many such songs. The film opens with one of them, sung by the Avva family together and sets up the moment when his daughter Apak begins to tell the story that is the film. But there is another kind of music: when we first see Rasmussen inside an Inuit snowhouse two women suddenly break into song in the background. They are singing a Jesus song - a scrap of revivalist, missionary music - and laughing at it. Their parody is confirmed by them shaking hands as southerners do, and giggling at such silliness. In this moment the strength of Inuit, shamanic culture is affirmed; a Jesus song is a joke.
As the story unfolds these songs from the missionaries become more intrusive. Avva's songs are set against them, or they against his. So the struggle in the film between the new Christianity and Inuit shamanism is seen and heard as opposing ways of making and using music. The Jesus songs are tuneless and simple-minded; Avva's music is complex and powerful. In one scene inside the snowhouse, with Rasmussen watching, Avva dances and sings on his own, and then the family sings as a group. The body of the dancer moves in front of the camera, blocking the image, then moves away to reveal the face of Apak, singing too, happy. The camera delays on her, then moves across to Avva. With the Inuit singing come memories of starvation from Avva's wife Orulu. She weeps because of the happiness of her life. Then, as the singing continues, there are games in the snowhouse: laughter, delight in life. Again the camera delays on faces in the soft light from the lamp. Two children are weeping with laughter, with joy.
This scene of happiness yields to the troubled Apak making love in a dream or vision (we have learned that she has fantasy sex with the one man she has loved but who has been killed), and then to her hearing the wailing of spirits. She tells them to go away. The joy of the songs and games in the snowhouse occur alongside some uncertainty, some apprehension. And this is echoed or confirmed by Avva's decision to travel to Igloolik - the place where the Christians are. As they arrive, a line of Inuit walks out to meet them, singing a hymn. As they sing they shake hands with Avva's group, and even with one of the dogs. But Avva won't shake hands, nor will he build his snowhouses too close to the Christians. As they build their houses, the singing of the Christians drones on. As it does so, Avva is given to understand that if he joins them he can eat with them; if not, then he and his family must remain hungry. A glimpse of a dead dog suggests that after a difficult and unlucky journey, this is all the Avva group, including the visitors from Greenland, have left to eat.
As the Christian group sings, Avva and his family drum and sing in their way. A spirit is summoned. In shamanism, troubles have to be explained with the help of the drum and songs. Now Apak responds and declares that she is the cause of their troubles. The drum continues. And outside, the Christians preach against the old taboos and urge Christian rules. No summoning of spirits, no exchanging of wives; don't work on Sundays, but pray to Jesus. Shamans cannot heal you, but if you confess your sins to Umik, the leader of the Christians, Jesus will heal you. And sing to Jesus: stop the drum, stop the songs - these are evil that will cause Inuit to burn in hell forever.
The dismayed faces of Avva and then Apak fill the frame. The shamanic drum and song resume. And now Apak confesses her sin: she had a miscarriage and did not tell anyone. In the group, in her family, to speak the truth is to earn forgiveness. But Avva is not satisfied: Apak has some vision of the future that she will not share. Challenged by her father, she declares that what matters to her most is that he eat and live. And left to make her own choice, she goes over to the Christians. The implication is clear enough: the Christian homes are where you can get food. The new life will be the secure life. Avva has been abandoned by the person who is closest to him, the one member of his family who can see and understand the spirit world as he does. Outside, the Christians, with Mathiassen and fellow Dane Peter Freuchen among them, are standing in organized lines, singing a hymn. None of the words of this are subtitled, but there is a chorus in which the Christians sing that they will follow Jesus, see the light, and find happiness. They sing these words in a joyless drone. In the background, coming to them, hesitating, Apak stands and stares. Umik invites her to join, placing her in a line, kneeling, ready to pray. Reluctant, silent, she has agreed with the others to be born again and be saved. And they all take a communion of food that violates shamanic taboos. They eat and sing more of their hymn. Apak, in misery, does not join in. In his snowhouse, with Orulu, Avva sings his song, eyes closed.
And he too has decided. Standing alone, surrounded by the endless landscape, he calls out to his three helping spirits. He has summoned them to send them away. Weeping and moaning in dismay, the three spirits walk from Avva, over the snow, towards a ridge, into the land. As they become tiny figures and Avva is lost to them, Avva's shamanic song is heard, though he is no longer to be seen. Just the last glimpse of his spirit helpers, his allies, his meaning as a shaman. The film cuts to black; the end credits begin. There are voices, a splash of laughter, a last glimpse of the sounds from inside Avva's snowhouse. A pause. Then the orchestra, the theme of the 'M'Appari' aria from Flotow's Marta, and the voice of Caruso again, calling out the passion, the peculiarly overwhelming feeling, of a romantic song from European opera. This continues over the main credits (which are set alongside black and white photographs from the Report of the 5th Thule Expedition) and then, as Caruso sings, these credits yield to an image: a sledge, a dogteam, and two figures - Avva and Orulu? Moving left to right across the snow, in an ever wider shot, in a huge landscape, a cluster of dogs all the same pale colour and gleaming in a strange, surreal golden light. An epitome, an icon of Inuit culture, of Inuit terrain and Inuit civilization. Then as the dogteam moves and the shot follows, as Caruso reaches the end of his aria, we see a cluster of figures and snowhouses. The two figures have reached others; they move towards the approaching dogteam. Small, black movements against the expanse of snow. For me, this was a heartbreaking moment, carrying the heartbreak of the film. A moment in which the vastness of culture is embodied in a man who must choose to be with people, with the Christians, even if it means he must lose the culture, even if he must walk under the sound of Caruso towards, we imagine, the dour hymns and new myths of the Christians.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this last image, this scene within the credits. It could represent the survival of Inuit life, since here is an image from within a film made in 2006 - long after the Rasmussen-Avva encounter. But the film as a whole does take us to the end of Avva as shaman, and of Rasmussen's glimpses of those moments in Avva's life, and of the telling of this story by Avva's daughter a generation later. But it is not quite the end of the film: as the last credits roll, there is a ghostly sound - a drum beat? A moaning, a whispering of spirits? So they are with us still, despite this story, despite the songs of the Christians and the great calling of Caruso. This sound may be just enough to fend off a final despair, for it makes the film linger in what might be a defiance of itself.
Knud Rasmussen, with his colleagues Peter Freuchen (trader and adventurer) and Therkel Mathiasson (anthropologist), traveled into the Canadian Arctic in the early 1920s. Rasmussen had grown up in Greenland, son of a Danish missionary who married a Greenlandic Inuit woman, Rasmussen spoke Inuktitut as his first language, and by the age of ten is said to have been an enthusiastic and skilful traveller, with his own dogteam and spending much of his time out with Inuit hunters. Rasmussen left Greenland to go to university in Copenhagen, but dropped out, returned to Greenland and at twenty-three became an interpreter for Arctic explorers. From this he became an explorer in his own right, taking part in a series of Arctic explorations. His 1921-23 journey - the whole way across Arctic America - was the fifth of his expeditions, and by far his most famous.
Rasmussen was more folklorist than scholar, and more of an intrepid traveller than intellectual. But he was thorough, and it seems that he delighted in listening to and recording stories. He wrote out much of what he heard, filling over thirty notebooks with translations of Inuktitut narratives and songs. There are those who challenge the integrity and even the authenticity of Rasmussen's work. But none can gainsay his most remarkable, perhaps unique achievement: he moved by dogteam from Inuit community to community, meeting with men and women who had had little if any contact with Europeans, and - here is the achievement - he could talk to them in their own language. I know of no other such encounter where the newcomer, the white person from the outside, came to peoples living so far beyond the colonial frontier and could speak their language with more or less complete fluency. And not just speak - Rasmussen also could listen.
I first read the Report of the 5th Thule Expedition, as the 26 volume expedition's findings are titled, and Across Arctic America, Rasmussen's popularized account of the expedition, in the 1970s. I remember being enthralled and amazed: here were glimpses of Inuit life that seemed to allow a reader to go much farther into the thoughts and concerns of 'traditional' Inuit life than any other documents. And I remember meeting Avva in those texts, the shaman who shared so much of his narrative with his young, white visitor. When I was living in the Arctic, and in places where Rasmussen had been fifty years earlier, I carried with me a few volumes of the Report of the 5th Thule Expedition. Here was an encounter of remarkable power and importance, evoked in texts that seemed to be close translations of Avva's words. Words that helped me to see just how much had been transformed in the fifty years since Rasmussen had been there - and also how some things (the language, the laughter, the engagement with the land, a love of ai-ai songs) - had stayed the same. And I remember thinking that some of the stories in Rasmussen could make a wonderful film.
Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn's film is more wonderful that anything I had imagined. They have been able to take the encounter between Rasmussen and Avva and turn it into a set, a layering of stories. They have drawn on events, on the real, and have used great filmmaking to transcend the real to achieve truth and poignancy that speak to the realities of the Iglulingmiut and, through them, to something universal. The roots of the film in history are acknowledged in the credits at the end of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen by inclusion of the photographs from the 5th Thule Expedition. There is the actual Rasmussen, and a group of Inuit he photographed near Igloolik in 1922. But the intense impact of the film comes from the way it reveals something of disturbing, even tragic, relevance to us all. The loss of the magical, the spirits, the shamanic stories - the displacement of metaphorical by material realities, the obscuring of intuition by reason - these are the universal themes that emerge through this film, and give it its powerful resonances. For all that it takes place in a distant corner of the high Arctic and at a time when people there lived their own, self-sustaining lives, and is spoken in a language known to no more than 50,000 people in the world, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is a film about just about everyone.
The human mind and the human condition depend on a balance of the past and the present. We know who we are and how to be in the world thanks to stories. We are held by the way these stories link us to a place; and the world we live in is given meaning by how our stories link us to our ancestors and to one another. The stories themselves are a mixture of the practical and the mysterious. We need both of these to be able to see, to make decisions, to be both puzzled and to solve the puzzles. At one point in the film, Avva says, "All our customs come from life and turn towards life." He could have said that all these customs, and therefore much of life, come from stories. Without stories, we are lost - to the world, because we cannot know it for what it has been, and to ourselves, because we cannot find who we are and might be able to become.
In The Journals of Knud Rasmussen we are taken to a moment, in the way that films depend on such moments, when the person who holds the stories has to abandon the stories. Perhaps the most remarkable sequence in the film is when Avva tells Rasmussen the core story of his own life and his becoming a shaman - his story about having these stories. Pakak Inukshuk (Avva) achieves a brilliant flow of performance as he describes the course of his life in long, uninterrupted takes, so complete in his acting that it appears to have not a moment of acting in it: and we hear in compelling detail the poetry of Avva's life as matters of plain fact. This is the mythic and spiritual told so well and with such authenticity that we more than suspend disbelief - we find, rather, that we can believe even in the hidden mysteries. Perhaps there is even another step: these are the kinds of stories in which we need to believe. As Avva gives Rasmussen this central account of his life, one of his spirit-familiars - a young woman with features that are clear and perfect - sits against the wall of the snowhouse, always in shot, alongside and supporting Avva without ever saying a word. The matter-of-factness of this presence gives a special, additional reality to Avva's accounts of the supernatural. When Avva at length finishes telling Rasmussen about his becoming and being a shaman, he has cast a spell over all of us; we need him to hold to his shamanic self because it represents a longing in us all for poetry and poetic meaning.
So when the Christians prevail, it is unbearable. We understand in the film that they represent a kind of irresistible force for change, the coming of the South to the North; and we are given to understand that they will provide some kind of security. But to Avva, and to us who, like Rasmussen, have received Avva's stories, this change is a disastrous loss. The end of the poetry; the domination of those grim hymns. And the end, perhaps, of some important part of what it means to be human. Not even the romantic intensity of Caruso's voice can persuade us otherwise. Rather, the feeling in that music of nineteenth century opera draws us into the anguish of Avva's shamanic defeat.
A twist in the story lies in where Rasmussen and his colleagues fit in this defeat. Close to the end of the film, when Apak is among the Christians, we see Mathiassen and Freuchen are there too - in among the Christians, not with Avva. Early in the film we know that Freuchen suggests, albeit in his broken Inuktitut, that there will be change and trade. So are these explorers - researchers themselves - part of the changes that are coming? An advance guard for the forces that will seek to obliterate the stories that they are so keen to record? This ambiguity is part of what the film causes us to think about as we watch, and wonder about afterwards. Yet this is not a part of the tragedy that the story seems to point to. That lies with Avva and his people.
The tragedy of the Arctic in modern times lies in the way so many young Inuit seek to harm themselves. Attempted and successful suicide rates across the North, as in all parts of Aboriginal Canada and many other parts of the world, are among the highest ever known anywhere. Some research suggests that as many as one in three young Inuit has thought seriously about attempting, or has attempted, suicide. All too many have succeeded. Inuit elders often have said that this is a result of loss of Inuit tradition, a failure of meaning in life that comes from erosion of Inuit knowledge and identity. Without the stories there is no way of knowing who or where or why...
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is a film - some would say "only" a film. But this is a film that comes from within the North, is in the language of the North, depends on great performances by Inuit actors, and shows something of the genius of Inuit society. A film can not be taken as some kind of antidote to the difficulties that have entered into Inuit life and that seem to demoralize so many Inuit youth. But it can signal hope. I think again of the very last section of the film's remarkable sound track: a drum beat, mysterious hints of a spirit world. Drums and spirits may not be the answer to the problems of the Arctic, but hope must be. And some meaning to life, some possibility for knowing who and where we are, can give hope.
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is a film that explores meaning, though it does so by showing loss. The greatness of the film lies in the way stories are told and songs are heard to reveal a way of life and life itself. It need achieve no more than this, for this is as much as a film can seek to achieve. This is a film that may speak to both history and a crisis in the Arctic in ways that offer meaning. It can be welcomed in many and vital ways.