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About The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
From Shamanism to Christianity in 1922
[The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is now available on iTunes.ca]
By Norman Cohn (in 2007)
‘Nobody will want to believe us, because our disaster is the disaster of the entire Civilized world.'- Ignacy Schipper writing from Majdanek
‘Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equals' - Charles Darwin
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In 2002 Atanarjuat the Fast Runner brought Inuit reality to worldwide audiences with an award-winning story of love, murder, revenge and forgiveness from the ancient past. Called ‘the first national cinema of the 21st century,’ the film inspired audiences with a new look at the human condition from the Inuit point of view. But a thousand years after Atanarjuat out-ran his enemies, where did the Fast Runner finally end up?
In The Journals of Knud Rasmussen the makers of Fast Runner dramatize conversion to Christianity in 1922 of Avva, Igloolik’s last shaman and his family, again from the Inuit point of view. Times have changed, and the Fast Runner has ended up in church.
For people whose survival rests on a delicate balance among human, animal and spirit souls, the loss of belief is an unnerving story. Revealing in its own narrative language the depth of the belief system lost, and its catastrophic impact on the rich and sensual family life that depended on it, The Journals exposes the cosmic disparity between Aboriginal and European cultural memories of a shared past. Like Fast Runner, The Journals takes another look at the human condition, but closer to unresolved conflicts of our own time.
In today’s world, the dual audience of Aboriginal and non-Native viewers stare across a sullen divide of centuries of demeaning stereotypes. In this film Native people think, a cultural identity rarely depicted in popular media. Seeing Inuit undeniably as sentient beings, The Journals sets in motion a non-violent opportunity for recognition and healing between two different audiences surprised or even unsettled at finding common ground.
Opening the Toronto International Film Festival in the language and voice of the colonized transforms The Journals into an historic national honor: the first film invited to carry forward the rich belief system of Aboriginal people to an Opening Night audience of Canada’s most powerful and privileged. The duality of this event continues through the film’s 35mm cinema release by using the new potential of digital HD to bring The Journals at the same time to audiences in remote northern Aboriginal communities.
The Inuit word Isuma means ‘to have a thought.’ Igloolik Isuma Productions, the film’s producer, is Thinking Productions. Their headquarters in Igloolik has a sign over the door that greets visitors and passers-by alike, in Inuktitut letters saying, ISUMA. Think! Why is it important if The Journals of Knud Rasmussen proves Inuit had Isuma even before they were ‘civilized’? Why not just get over past injustices no one can do anything about and get on with the present where Justice now rules?
In fact, by recovering the past with new clarity, The Journals IS about the present. Much of the New World’s wealth today was extracted from its Aboriginal citizens, who by every measure now are the most destitute populations in these countries. If the Inuit of Fast Runner ended up in 1922 in church, the Inuit of The Journals ended up in today’s newspapers stories, living in Third World ghettos scattered across the wealthiest First World nations.
Different cultures, different memories, tell different stories. We recover the past not to change it then but to change it now, to stop doing it again today and avoid making our own present a shameful past for future generations. 500 years of New World History has been shaped by policies that disconnect Aboriginal people from their own cultural memories: criminalizing leaders for performing traditional ceremonies; assimilating children in residential schools where pedophilia and abuse destroyed their identity, language and self-respect; Christianizing ancestral religions by demonizing myths, taboos and profound spiritual beliefs; and entrenching demeaning stereotypes in popular culture which persist even today. Major sports teams still use names like Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves and Edmonton Eskimos, while names like Boston Blackfaces or Kansas City Kikes would be unthinkable in modern civilized society.
For European settlers, intent on possessing valuable land rich in natural resources, it was a necessary and natural conceit to perceive people who lived there first as primitive, thoughtless and not quite human, without historical memory, spiritual sophistication or legal rights, and holding no world-view worth carrying forward into the modern future. How else could decent, church-going pioneers displace them without guilt, unless they believed Aboriginal peoples don’t really think like human beings?
Even today the law, education, religion and media continue to efface living memories of Aboriginal cultural history. Was the land empty, terra nullius, justifying settlement without compensation? Or full, as new discoveries estimate more than 100 million people in the New World before Columbus? Were indigenous people savages, like John Wayne’s bloodthirsty Indians in The Searchers? Simple-minded, like Robert Flaherty’s perpetually cheerful Nanook of the North? Or sophisticated, like the Iroquois Confederacy whose constitutional government preceded the American Constitution by two centuries? Answers to these essential questions – of civilization and brainpower - depend on who’s telling the story and who’s listening to it.
The Journals is a modern film about modern thinking. It challenges diverse audiences to go beyond stereotypes of denial, bitterness or guilt; and toward healing, by watching the same film from different sides and thinking of the other audience watching it too.
Like tension, healing has two sides: Avva’s intelligence, cultural sophistication and universally familiar family drama force viewers to experience the colonial myth in a new way. At the same time, Aboriginal viewers see in the fully-formed humanity of The Journals’ characters a new dignity in their own great-grandparents, and respect for lost cultural memories many still hope to recover.
The advent of High-Definition digital distribution brings new answers to the question of who gets to see films and who doesn’t. Low-cost portable HD projection makes it possible to bring films to remote audiences outside the 35mm grid. Distributing The Journals to distant communities where 80% of Aboriginal people still live employs HD as a meaningful, humane technology, to open a healing discourse on a troubled history.
The Journals is modern HD filmmaking focused more on content than technique. HD’s clarity intensifies the authenticity and lived reality of the film’s characters, who include Kunuk’s own great-grandparents and many of his cast and crew. Playing the shaman Avva, lead actor Pakak Inukshuk recounts his life story and spiritual beliefs using Avva’s own words from 1922, already forbidden as sinful by Christian missionaries but transcribed for us from Knud Rasmussen’s actual journals, and never spoken again by Inuit until now.
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen recovers a shaman’s own words and carries them across 85 years of cultural silence to modern Inuit and other audiences, giving the title of the film new urgency. These ARE The Journals of Knud Rasmussen which, after all, reflected a contract between Knud and Avva in 1922, to insure Avva’s story would live into the changing future, long after it had been silenced in his own time. Blurring the conventional boundaries between memory and reality, fiction and documentary, film and video, and past and present, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen engages the future of HD as a vehicle of time-travel for the benefit of humanity.