Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been hailed as the first and greatest documentary film, and although I would not necessarily agree with either claim (it's certainly not the first, in any case). But yes, Nanook rewrote the book for documentary film, and it did so by taking a number of pages out of the history of dramatic film.

Robert Flaherty had actually compiled two different sets of footage in the Arctic in the years before Nanook, and had at first intended to use this material to make his film. And yet, although this material clearly showed the "actual" Arctic, it did so piecemeal, and without any strong central narrative. When the working print caught fire and was destroyed (early nitrite film stock was highly flammable), Flaherty decided on a whole new plan. Instead of simply pointing his camera at things that were actually happening, he decided to "cast" specific Inuit as members of an imaginary family, and then deliberately create a narrative which not only included the "incidents" he'd earlier filmed, but extended the story through a complete dramatic arc, much as would a feature film. The idea was revolutionary, but still he needed backers to provide the resources.

He found a willing sponsor in Revillon Frères, a fur concern which operated a series of trading posts; the "friendly trader" in the early scenes is from one of these. The company simply asked that they be portrayed in a positive light, a seemingly small request, but one which nevertheless does affect the film's objectivity. Flaherty also wished to depict Inuit life from the era before the adoption of modern weapons such as rifles; thus, although one of the main reasons the Inuit traded with the white man was to obtain guns and ammunition, this was not shown, and "Nanook" hunts only with a spear. He
even persuaded them to conduct a walrus hunt with traditional weapons, something the local Inuit had not done for more than a generation, and which they were reluctant at first to re-enact. As Inuit writer Alootook Ipellie pointed out, it would be as though someone came to modern Toronto to ask the locals to show how everyone lived in the 1800's!

And of course Nanook himself, his wife Nyla "the smiling one," and the rest of the family depicted by Flaherty were in fact actors, Inuit playing an Inuit family. Nanook was portrayed by Allakariallak, whom Flaherty chose for his patience and rugged appearance; Nyla was played by a young Inuk woman, Maggie Nujarlutuk, who was, actually Flaherty's common-law wife at the time the film was made, and one of the babies shown may have been their child, Joseph (or Josephie; the Inuit added an -ie or -ee to many western names). Like many other explorers and travelers before him, including Peary and Henson, Flaherty left his child behind when he headed back south to take up a career as a filmmaker. Josephie Flaherty was, as fate would have it, one of the Ungava Inuit who was to be forcibly relocated to Resolute and Grise Fiord in the 1950's in a misguided attempt to strengthen Canadian sovereignty in the North. This group, known as the "High Arctic Exiles," finally received a financial settlement offer from the federal Canadian government a few years ago, but no apology was made then, or has been made since.

And to be fair, Flaherty could not necessarily have anticipated the worldwide response to his film. Although Revillon Frères thought of it more or less as a promotional venture and did not even expect to recover their costs, Nanook was picked up for distribution by Pathé, given a New York premiere and went on to be one of the most successful films of 1922. Flaherty was given a contract by Paramount, and headed off for Samoa to make a film about the native people there; this second film took three years to make, and was not as successful as Nanook, although it was in reference to this film that the word "documentary" was coined (such films had previously been known as "actualities"). Flaherty was next paired with W.S. Van Dyke to make another south seas film, but they had a falling out (Van Dyke was later to make 1933's "Eskimo," the first big-budget, big-screen northern epic of the sound era). After parting ways with Van Dyke, Flaherty was sent to work with German visionary F.W. Murnau to work on a film called "Tabu," but they too soon parted ways. Flaherty then moved to Britain, and worked on some shorter films as well as "Man of Aran," which was set in the remote Aran islands. He then went to work for producer Alexander Korda on a film set in India, to be titled "Elephant Boy," and yet again was fired from the project. Back in the U.S., he worked on several more documentaries, but problems with financing and distribution meant that few of them were ever seen in his lifetime.

One of the stories that Flaherty liked to tell was how Allakariallak, less than two years after Nanook was filmed, had starved to death in the frozen wilderness that was his home. The press loved this story, and it's still frequently repeated today. But it's not true; according to testimony from his son and other family members, Allakariallak died from "white man's disease" -- probably tuberculosis -- at home with his family. He may well have been exposed to it during the time he worked with Flaherty on Nanook.

NB: If you're planning to watch part of all of Nanook online, the best link is this one.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Savages" On Display

The display of humans to other humans has taken many forms over the ages, but surely there have been few as problematic, and often degrading, as the practice of displaying human beings in zoos. The postcard at left is from Carl Hagenbeck's Hamburg "Tierpark" (Animal Park), and shows a group of Labrador Inuit who appeared there in the fall of 1911. The group included Nancy Columbia, whom Arctic historian Kenn Harper has aptly described as the most famous Inuk of her day; she was born in an Eskimo display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and over the course of her career appeared at well over a dozen world's fairs and expositions from Seattle to St. Louis to Madrid and Paris. She also was featured in a number of early silent films, and wrote he scenario for one of them, "The Way of the Eskimo," which was the first Inuit-written, Inuit-cast film ever made; unfortunately it is not known to survive. In the photo above, taken in connection with their appearance at a "Nordland" festival organized by Zoo proprietor Karl Hagenbeck, Nancy is second from the left, with her trademark Princess-Leia style hairdo; her mother, Esther Eneutseak, is third from the right, with a baby in her arms.

Nancy and her mother were the core of this well-known group of "Eskimos," and while they were the best-known and longest-lived such group, they were far from the only ones. Carl Hagenbeck had displayed several other groups of Inuit at his Zoo, starting with Abraham Ulrikab and his family in 1880. Like many such Inuit, Abraham became ill due with a European disease -- smallpox -- and he, his wife, his teenage daughter, nephew, and infant daughter all succumbed with a few weeks of one another. Remarkably, he left a diary, which was recently translated and published. They were not the first, nor would they be the last, to be quite literally displayed to death.

A full listing of Inuit, along with Inupiat, Yupik, Greenland, and Siberian Eskimos who were put on display in Europe and the U.S., would be a long one, and their life stories would fill many books. Unfortunately, little is known about most of them. Nancy Columbia, surely the most famous of them all, retired from shows around 1920, and lived quietly with her mother in Santa Monica, California. She married a motion-picture projectionist, and they had a daughter named Sue who still lives in the area. Nancy Columbia died in 1959, forgotten by the world, but not by those of us who study Arctic history; you can read the essay Kenn Harper and I wrote on her career here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

John Walker's "Passage"

John Walker’s documentary Passage is among the most unusual documentaries I’ve seen on any subject. Unlike the vast majority of documentary films that followed in the wake of Nanook of the North, PASSAGE doesn’t fully fictionalize its facts, nor does it entirely factualize its fictions. The opening sequence (which you can see online here), is the tip-off: Rick Roberts, who plays the Scottish surveyor Dr. John Rae, is seen walking in present-day garb through present-day London, passing such iconic sights as St. Paul’s, the Millenium Bridge and Trafalgar Square. As he enters the Admiralty building in Whitehall and ascends the stairs, there is a certain dramatic tension – what next? The answer comes as he knocks and enters; as he steps into the room, we see the Lords of the Admiralty in full period uniform, then realize that Dr. Rae, too, has traded in his nylon backpack and windbreaker for a frock coat and an oversize bow tie. We know where we are, but when are we?

Walker delights in these sorts of anachronistic transitions in which, again and again, we are invited to pay attention to the proverbial ‘man behind the curtain.’ We see “Dr. Rae” speaking with such luminaries as James Clark Ross and John Richardson; the next moment we see them out of costume, seated around a table in a modern room discussing story ideas for the film. One moment, we are presented with a brilliant turn by Geraldine Alexander as Lady Franklin; the next we see her out of costume, looking like Annie Lennox on a bad hair day. In and out of these transitions, we meet with a few figures who remain in the present and – at first – outside the main action of the film: the director himself, author Ken McGoogan on whose book the film was based, and perennial Nunavut political figure Tagak Curley.

The re-staged scenes from the past – Captain Coppin revealing his daughters’ visions to Lady Franklin, Charles Dickens proposing his article in Household Words to Lady Franklin and a skeptical Dr. Richardson, Dr. Rae trudging across the tundra – work wonderfully, but are punctuated with lengthy sequences set in the present, beginning with a visit by Rick Roberts to the Orkney home of Dr. Rae, practicing his Scots brogue and how to cock and raise a rifle with local experts. Gradually, we come to see the historical pieces as the interludes, and the present action as the play itself, a tangent which comes to a head when Tagak Curley arrives in London. Curley, a charismatic politician who’s better known around Nunavut for his evangelical campaign slogans (“Jesus is Lord over Nunavut!”), happily plays the native informant to Walker, who guides him to the foot of the Franklin statue at Waterloo place. “They forged the last link with their lives,” he reads – and Curley hurries to disagree. “That’s a lie. Dead men can’t discover anything.”

And thereon hangs a tale, though it is one the film never quite tells explicitly. The belief among Franklin’s admirers has been that men dispatched from his ship in 1847 almost certainly reached Simpson’s Cairn, erected near the strait of the same name by an eastward survey of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Doing so would have united eastern with western maps, in effect “discovering” the, or at least a, passage. There is no absolute evidence of this, but both the records left by land parties and Inuit testimony agree that some men of Franklin’s party, whether as explorers or bedraggled survivors, certainly reached the extreme southwestern edge of King William Island, and some crossed over to the mainland.

Dr. Rae’s claim, championed by McGoogan and loudly echoed recently by Billy Connolly, comes later – in 1854 – and has to do with the Rae Strait on the southeastern corner of King William. Since the western side was rendered impassable nearly every year by heavy pack ice, the shallower but clearer eastern side is seen as a truer “passage”; indeed it was the route taken by Roald Amundsen when he became the first to sail the passage from end to end. Rae, as the surveyor of this alternative “last link,” is heralded as the true discoverer of “the” passage. Rae’s superior skill in surveying, and in living off the land, is undeniable; that he was snubbed by the Admiralty and attacked by Dickens indisputable. Yet the snub came, not because of any geographical claim, but rather on account of the Inuit testimony, brought home by Rae, that the final few Franklin survivors had turned to the “last resource” – cannibalism – in their efforts to stay alive and escape their frozen prison.

Tagak Curley, though hailed by some as the “Father of Nunavut,” is certainly no expert on the Inuit testimony about the Franklin expedition, or he wouldn’t so readily dismiss Franklin’s claim. One need not admire the Royal Navy, or Franklin himself, to credit the evidence that his men did indeed reach a point at our near the furthest eastward survey. He’s on firmer ground with his criticism of those who attacked Rae for bringing home the evidence of cannibalism, particularly Dickens who believed the Inuit attacked the Franklin survivors, and spoke of their having a “domesticity of blood and blubber.” And here again, Walker does not disappoint; he brings two unlikely people into the discussion, which by now has moved into the Admiralty board room: Ernie Coleman, RN (ret.), and Dickens’s own great-grandson. Coleman happily launches into his defense of the idea of bloodthirsty Inuit, which gets the whole room, especially Curley, shouting. Then comes the heir of Dickens, a man who’s made some study of his ancestor’s claims, and is more than willing to admit that Charles Dickens acted out of prejudice and ignorance. When he apologizes to Curley and Curley accepts, the moment is both deeply moving and somewhat absurd – and yet it is a moment that could have happened in no other film.

The movie earned strong reviews in Canada, and is now available there and in the U.S. on DVD. It’s not a perfect film, but it is provocative, and no one who has any knowledge or feelings about either Franklin or Rae should miss seeing it.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Inuit Meet the Explorers

For the explorers to meet the Inuit is one thing; for the Inuit to meet the "explorers" is quite another. What can it mean to be "discovered"? And how should one act in the presence of strangers whose clothes seem ragged and poor, but whose wealth -- reckoned up in the form of wood, metal, and manufactured items such as sewing needles and metal knives -- is so vast that it almost destroys the entire Inuit notion of economy? They come to you, starving, dying, frostbitten, gums blackened with scurvy -- and yet even their last few possessions make them rich beyond belief. It's little wonder that, eight or more generations later, these men appear more frequently as demons than as human creatures.

Dorothy Eber has worked collecting Inuit oral history for more than forty years; in 1971, she collaborated with the Inuit artist/writer Pitseolak Ashoona on Pictures Out of my Life, one of the very first published books by an Inuk. In 1996, she published When the Whalers Were Up North, an oral history of the contact and collaboration between Inuit and the crews of whaling vessels in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with all such histories, the vividness of memory, even at a distance of more than a century, is striking.

In all these books, you also see something of the modern life of these Inuit elders and their families. In the late 1950's, most Inuit were forced into permanent settlements, although the older people sometimes returned to camp on the land from time to time. Since there were so many people with identical names, Inuit were first issued numbers printed on dog tags, and later obliged to take last names as part of "Project Surname." The children and grandchildren of these Inuit grew up without much sense of what life out on the land was like, and traditional foods -- seal, walrus, and caribou meat, whale blubber (muktuk) and birds' eggs gave way to more standard southern fare, including canned, frozen, and fried foods. In the 1990's, satellite televisions started to become common, and the Internet arrived in the North; at one point there were more computers per capita in Nunavut than anywhere else in Canada.

And amazingly, throughout all these changes, the Inuit oral tradition continued to thrive, although at times details were lost, or different stories condensed into one. The deaths of the last elders who came of age out on the land meant that the fullest versions of many of these stories were lost, and stories about stories took their place. Ms. Eber's work has preserved what are, alas, very likely the last few versions of stories from these traditions, where the visits of explorers such as Ross, Franklin, and Amundsen are recalled almost as if they had happened yesterday.

These stories challenge us to see our ancestors and ourselves as we were seen by others: strangers, ill-equipped for survival but wealthy with scarce commodities; lost, searching for others who were lost before them, and unable to communicate clearly. Again and again, the Inuit did what they could to help these strangers: they provided food, hunted, and traded with them. And yet it seemed these strange people did not know how to live! The Inuit sometimes made fun of these odd people who yelled at one another and were very concerned about who was the boss (the Isumutaq, 'one who speaks for others'). And, to be fair, they made fun of themselves as well; after chopping a hole in one of the white people's big umiaks in order to get at the things inside, they laughed ruefully when, once the ice thawed, the ship sank to the bottom, taking all the things with it.

These tales carry both hints of the distant past, and the imprint of Inuit culture in the twenty-first century, with all its challenges. What do we hear when we hear these stories today?

Monday, September 14, 2015

Arctic Passage

A documentary film has an aura of fact. After all, our friend the Narrator wouldn’t mislead us – or would he? Ever since documentary films began in the 1890’s, when they were called “actuality” films, this has been a vexed question. Thomas Edison’s film company, for instance, knew that there was tremendous demand for footage of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The cost, and risk, of sending cameramen and equipment to the battlefield was prohibitive; it was far more cost-effective to stage battles in New Jersey with hired actors and costumes. Thus was begun the noble tradition of re-creating scenes that the camera had missed, one which has enjoyed a resurgence of late. When it came to the Arctic, much the same rule applied; despite the successes of pioneers such as Frank Hurley, whose footage of Shackleton’s expedition electrified audiences, the big studios usually found it far more economical to send a camera crew to the Sierras and use the snow and mountains there as their backdrop. With Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty reversed that trend, but as we'll see in a couple of weeks, he managed to open a whole new can of muktuk.

Of course that was 1922 – and here we are in 2015. Surely we’ve come a long way from the “Nanook” era. And yet, in many ways, these same practices persist today. To explain, I’ll tell you a little about my work on the documentary, “Search for the Northwest Passage,” which aired in the UK, and in the US under the title “Arctic Passage.” I’d worked as a consultant on the film for more than a year before it finally got the “green light” for production. As a co-production between Britain’s ITN TV and WGBH/NOVA, this was to be a big-budget affair, as documentaries go these days. The producers sent an advance crew to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to scout locations and lay plans; back in London, scripts were prepared for the historical recreations. The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship. The scenes with Lady Franklin and Sir John were completed in London, and those playing Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest were flown to the Arctic for location work. What remained was to line up the “talking heads” – the on-camera experts – and interweave their footage with the re-creations. I was lucky to be one of just two of these “heads” who would be filmed on location.

It was a strange business. As soon as we arrived in Gjoa Haven, the first order of business was to film my “arrival” – another plane was filmed landing, and we did several shots of me getting off this plane and "heading" to the hotel. After about the fourth take of this sequence, I turned to the director of photography, Harald Paalgard, and remarked “there sure is a lot of fiction in these documentaries.” He laughed. “It’s all fiction,” he declared. What he meant, of course, was that it’s all about the story. If some expert is to arrive at a remote location to conduct research, he or she must be shown arriving; the viewer will want and need this thread in order to accept the overall truth of the film. The small “fiction” of the staged arrival was in the service of the larger truth of the overall story.

By the time we got to Gjoa Haven, most of the dramatic actors had gone home. The only remaining scenes at that point were with local Inuit, who played their own ancestors. A call had been put out to any adult men and women who possessed caribou-skin outfits and could speak Inuktitut; a wage of $100 a day was offered. Quite a few showed up, and the best were set to work, speaking to the “explorers” from within an igloo the townspeople had built on the town’s “beach” (odd to call anything a beach in twenty-below zero weather!). After a week in Gjoa, it was off to Resolute, and to Beechey Island, that mythical centerpiece of the Franklin saga. There, we did numerous shots of me riding on a snow machine piloted by the crew’s guide and safety officer, polar veteran Paul Landry. I wondered why, given that we’d chartered a helicopter to Beechey, but when I saw the film I had to agree that a 30-mile trek across the ice in a skidoo was far more dramatic than 10 minutes in a chopper.

Unlike the dramatic actors, I didn’t have a script. Instead, I had “talking points” – themes, facts, and observations, many of which I’d submitted myself, which the producers had sorted out in terms of where and how they wanted them placed. It was awkward at times, since I had to improvise my lines from these points, but had to make sure I did not add any asides or wander from the key points. We were shooting on 16mm film, so every moment meant money; it wasn’t until the second or third day that I really grew used to the arrangement; there is something in a scholar’s disposition that resists absolutes. and cautions against conjectures.

Once all the footage was shot, then comes the next phase of truth-telling – editing. It’s not uncommon to have a hundred hours of footage for a single hour of finished film, so a great deal can happen at this stage, for better or for worse. Even though all the shots have been pre-planned to fit the puzzle, there are dozens of slight variations to every piece, and just the right ones must be chosen. At this stage, I was called upon to re-record some of my comments, and add others that could be used as voiceovers for existing footage; this gave the producers the flexibility they needed. Like the rest of the cast, of course, I had no idea exactly what choices were being made, I could only guess what was in the stew from the ingredients I’d added myself, or seen filmed. It wasn’t in fact until nearly six months later when I received a videocassette of the UK version in the mail that I had the least idea how it had all come out.

And yet were still further changes in store – the US producers decided to re-write the script, and re-shoot a series of additional interviews with me – and of course they made quite a few different choices in the editing room. The result, though equally satisfying, made me once more conscious of the intricacies -- and vagaries -- of filmmaking. The film aired in England in 2005, and in the US in 2006, where it has since be shown several more times. When it aired in French in Québec, one of its viewers, Dominique Fortier, was so struck by the story that she was inspired to write a novel, On the Proper Use of Stars, which is now being made into a film by Jean-Marc Vallée, director of The Young Victoria. All of which goes to show you can never tell where a story may go next, once it's passed through your hands.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a brass plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashed on couches, and worked -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, was a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Welcome to Arctic Encounters

Welcome to the blog site for our Fall 2015 course, English 261: Arctic Encounters. Since this is a hybrid course, with roughly half of our activities taking place online, this  page will serve as the central stepping-off point for our virtual excursions into the Frozen North -- there are links here to all our class readings, viewings, and listenings, along with other academic resources.  But the most important part of this site, though, is the blog itself. Each week, I'll post an item about the readings or viewings for the class, and everyone will have an opportunity to respond and post their own views. I encourage an informal style here -- no need to niggle over grammar, spelling, or formalities -- this should be the place for wide-ranging discussions, open exchange of ideas, and questions of all kinds. It's fine to respond to other students' postings as well -- I encourage you to think of these postings as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than isolated islands of thought.

There are few places left on earth where simply going there seems extraordinary – but but a trip north of the Arctic Circle still seems to signify the experience of something astonishing. This course takes up the history of human exploration and interaction in the Arctic, from the early days of the nineteenth century to the present, with a focus on contact between European and American explorers and the Eskimo, or Inuit as they are more properly known today. We'll read first-hand accounts and view documentaries that recount these histories, both from the Western and the Inuit side of the story. It's a region of the world that's growing in significance, as global warming heats up more than ice; in recent years, Canada, Russia, and Denmark have all staked out new claims to the frozen zone. The future of climate change, human cultural change, and increasingly scarce natural resources may lie, not in the West or the East -- but in the North.