Friday, September 08, 2006

REV: After Atanarjuat

From the Native Languages listserv:

Latest by Inuit director Zacharias Kunuk opens 2006 Toronto film festival
John Mckay, Canadian Press, Thursday, September 07, 2006

TORONTO (CP) - In 2001, Nunavut filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and his
Montreal-based co-producer Norman Cohn burst onto the film scene with
"Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner".

While opening up a third language - Inuktitut - in Canadian cinema, the
$2 million indie film also won a Genie Award and the Camera d'or at
Cannes. And it sold a lot of tickets.

At the time, Kunuk promised that his next project would be about "a man
in a dress" who came to the Arctic and changed everything, a reference
to the first missionaries, a sort of northern version of "Black Robe."

On Thursday, the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival opens with
that promised feature, "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen," a $6.3 million
co-production with Denmark based on real accounts by 1920s Danish
explorer Rasmussen. His expedition to the Canadian north brought an
anthropologist who wanted to record details of a pure native culture
that would soon disappear in the face of white civilization and

But while based on the chronicles of that expedition, the film plays out
from the Inuit perspective, with many of the same aboriginal actors who
appeared in "Atanarjuat", again speaking in their native Inuktitut,
with subtitles.

"This is a film that is designed to be a kind of healing experience for
native audiences (who) tend to be excluded from the film distribution
process," explains Cohn in a recent interview from Montreal. "At the
same time there's no question that this is a film for the non-native
audience also because everybody in Canada is part of this same story."

"Atanarjuat" was set in the 16th century, and plays out like a modern
thriller, with love, sex, betrayal and murder. "Knud Rasmussen",
however, while also a "re-lived cultural drama," is set in 1922 and has
a markedly different narrative structure. Through dialogue, not action,
audiences learn that the tribe onscreen has been resisting the white
man's incursions, refusing to work for them. But as the camera pans
around their igloos, we see the changes already in effect ... modern
tin cups, knives, even wedding rings.

The man in a dress isn't actually present on the tundra yet, but a
converted shaman is already waving a copy of the Holy Bible. It's only
a matter of time.

The plot is anchored by a lengthy soliloquy from Avva, the last of the
great Igloolik shamans, as recorded by the Danes. Avva is portrayed by
Pakak Innukshuk, whose wizened face commands the screen for the
duration of the scene in which he lays out his people's doomed
ancestral beliefs and spiritualism.

"Avva's story, once he converted to Christianity, is never told again
because as Christians, Inuit were forbidden to talk about those
things," Cohn explains.

"So we have the character playing Avva speak Avva's words for the first
time in 85 years."

Kunuk has said that he wanted to make the film for Inuit elders who are
still alive and for a desperate younger generation that sees little
promise in the future.

"It tries to answer two questions that haunted me my whole life: Who
were we? And what happened to us?"

Asked how the film will play for white audiences, whether in Canada or
Copenhagen, Cohn stresses that this is a film about universal human
experiences, especially loss.

"Whether it's a belief system being lost or a way of life being lost,
the 20th century is full of it and it's not just aboriginal people."

Cohn says his 20-year collaboration with Kunuk - one is Inuk and born in
an Arctic sod house, the other born in New York City's Washington
Heights - is not unusual. Both are credited as directors, screenwriters
and producers. Cohn even handles the digital video camera.

"Our collaboration is based on seeing filmmaking through similar pairs
of eyes," he says. "Basically I'm looking after the image and he's
looking after the content of what's in the frame."

As for the honour of kicking off the Toronto festival, Cohn says it'll
be the first time voices of aboriginal people speak to an audience of
Canada's most powerful and privileged.

"You know, most people in the opening night audience have never sat and
spent two hours listening to what aboriginal people have to say."


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