“The Slow Thaw of Western Myth: Reclamation of Visual Sovereignty in Inuit Culture”*

*by Michael T. Lloyd, writing for the website of Lehigh University Digital Library.

“The advent of motion pictures at the turn of the 20th century gifted mankind with an unprecedented ability to record and represent both the broad history and subtle nuances of existing cultures outside of a studio setting. There are, however, inherent pitfalls in pseudo-documentary filmmaking whereby the means of production and distribution are available only to a small percentage of the population, often backed by controlling interests prioritizing financial gain and/or a subjective creative vision. This socioeconomic division fosters hegemony, unfortunately putting the cultures that could benefit most from a vivid declaration of sovereignty through film at the greatest risk for misrepresentation and marginalization. When shot and told through a foreign perspective that yearns to appeal to a foreign audience, the guise of objectivity dissolves.

Ripe with seemingly veritable stimuli, the medium of film is subject to manipulations steered by motives effectively subversive to truthfulness. Inuit culture in particular has encountered such distortion, still plagued today by enduring stigmas and stereotypes instituted nearly a century ago. Unequipped with the means to dispel the muddled and farcical Hollywood depictions with a large-scale feature-length production of their own design, the Inuit cultural identity warped concurrently with a reduction in social efficacy during the twentieth century.

However absurd, unreliable, and embellished a film may screen, the end result is nonetheless an indelible experience with audible, visual, and textual content that creates instinctive categorizations, in turn ushering the formation of stigmas and stereotypes. Here the power of the film reaches far beyond the theater doors, expanding out into mainstream societies. The myth gains momentum with each viewing, careening audiences downhill as a collective whole in the rampant spreading of misinformation and mislabeling. Groupthink such as this propagates hegemony and the degradation of “intellectual health”(Raheja 1161), casting entire groups of people aside as “anachronistic and irrelevant” (Raheja 1160). This incongruity restricts assimilation into modern society, putting the Inuit at risk for a grave marginalization from history.

In spite of the misrepresentation of cultures, such films can find critical praise and the acclaim of a mass audience. With critical commendation and popularity, the myth takes deeper root in social memory, effectively relegating the examined culture’s existence on a large scale and threatening their sovereignty. Nanook of the North (1922) and Savage Innocents (1960) were very successful films during their releases and still garner praise today from critics, despite their inaccuracies and questionable representations of Inuit life. So what separates these two films from each other? Are they equally at fault for hindering the Inuit’s “attempt to survive and flourish as people?” (Raheja 1170)

Thankfully with the aid of technological advancement, reduced budgetary concerns, and technical feasibility, Inuit culture reignited their quest for “visual sovereignty” at the turn of the 21st century with Atanarjuat (2001), a film targeting both the “absurd assumptions” about their ways of life and the “disempowering structures of cinematic dominance and stereotype” (Raheja 1160). Zachary Kunuk’s attempt to remediate the misrepresentation of Inuit culture brought about by Nanook of the North and Savage Innocents in mainstream cinema boldly triumphs as an aesthetically magnificent, financially successful, culturally rich, and genuine representation of Inuit people told through their heritage, language, voicing, and style. Through the examination of the means of production, characterization of Inuit culture, public’s/critic’s reception and legacy of these three films, I will trace the industry’s missteps and successes toward nurturing visual sovereignty.

Nanook of the North was filmed between August 1920-August 1921 by Robert J. Flaherty and released in 1922. Flaherty prospected for a railroad company in Northeastern Canada years before his first attempt to document Inuit culture. From 1913-1916 he documented the Inuit, compiling recordings of his travels in a broad, observatory style. Following the fiery loss of this initial footage, Flaherty refocused his efforts and with the funding of a French fur company returned to the North to more intimately document the story of an indigenous family of the Itivimuit tribe and their patriarchal hunter Nanook. Armed with two Akeley motion-picture cameras, Flaherty employed members of the Itivimuit tribe as his film crew and began production.

A majority of films preceding Nanook were either short comedies such as Charlie Chaplin’s films or short pieces focused primarily on realism rather than human storytelling. Flaherty distinguished himself from his contemporaries in Nanook not only by the ambition of creating the film but also by merging a constructed narrative with “an exotic journey with details of indigenous work and play” (Duncan). Despite widespread critical acclaim and positive public reception, Flaherty’s film shared the same “ethnocentric biases and racism of his contemporaries” (Raheja 1161).

Though guilty of concreting the perception of Inuits as “noble” or “bloodthirsty” savages, isolated and at the brink of extinction, and unable to evolve beyond primitive tribes, Flaherty did collaborate extensively with the Inuit, employing them as “technicians, camera operators, film developers, and production consultants” (Raheja 1162). Not only did the Inuit assist in the technical aspects of production, they also “performed for the camera, reviewed and criticized their performances and were able to offer suggestions for additional scenes in the film” (Raheja 1162).

Flaherty’s involvement of indigenous people in the film’s production was progressive in filmmaking, and I find it difficult to entirely vilify his shortcomings in Nanook. His intent was not malevolent, though that does not preclude the ramifications of his work from criticism. Such controversially staged scenes and anachronisms as an unfamiliarity with firearms, the infamous gramophone scene, and the clown-car canoe exit sequence merge with the film’s such aesthetic strengths as real animal prey and a breathtaking alien landscape to create a film of enticement, awe, and half truths. The final product is therefore “shaped by Western–rather than Eskimo–realities and desires” (Huhndorf 144).

Though Flaherty’s work sought a high level of participation of indigenous people in the film’s production, he managed to degrade their sovereignty in a trend that would continue for nearly a century. I argue Nanook of the North is the most damaging (but not the most appalling) film under examination to diminish Inuit sovereignty because of its acclaimed emergence as the first feature-length documentary and overall benign digestibility. Here audiences found the trust needed to deeply root perversions of Inuit life into the social-consciousness of modern society. Forty years after the widespread success of Nanook of the North, Nicholas Ray jumped on the dogsled of representing exotic cultures in remote locations with his adaptation of Hand Ruesch’s novel Top of the World in the film Savage Innocents.

Perhaps the most appalling film I’ve seen in years, Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents is a painful experience riddled with hyperbole, misrepresentation of historical and cultural truth, embellishment, and insensitive farce. Within the first three minutes of the film, a wild polar bear is gruesomely speared entirely for shock value, a narrator claims the Inuit are proud and uncivilized group of nomads who hunt with bow and arrow in the age of the atom bomb and are so crude they don’t know how to lie. The narrator goes on to state that it is unclear whether or not man or bear hold dominion over the land, emphasizing a false sense of Inuit vanishing and irrelevance. In Ray’s Inuit world, women are worthless and scarce, made only to receive orders from their husbands and laughing is a euphemism for sexual intercourse. Not one of these statements is true.

The following scene introduces the film’s protagonist, Inuk, played by Mexican-born Anthony Quinn. Inuk arrives at his friend Anarvik’s igloo by dogsled and interrupts the incessant laughter and coitus between Anarvik and his wife. Inuk then barbarically gulps down some dried meat and tea, spilling and scattering crumbs while lamenting his lack of a woman amidst childlike conversation with the others. Upon exiting, Anarvik offers the misrepresented practice of wife-sharing that entails great insult should the wife be rejected after the husband’s offering. A violent scuffle ensues, and Inuk smashes Anarvik’s head against the igloo’s exterior until he falls unconscious.

After riding off, we find Inuk goofily flapping about the icy surface imitating a nearby seal for stealthy hunting purposes, herein likening Inuk to the animal. After spearing the seal, Anarvik comes upon a comically struggling Inuk and joyfully assists in the arduous wrangling of animal and neglecting the scuffle the two shared minutes before. Anarvik then relays that his brother’s daughters, all played by Japanese actresses, have arrived at camp bringing oodles of painfully forced laughter with them. The film goes on to portray Inuits as unfamiliar with firearms and ammunition, ignorant to the details of childbirth (perplexed by the umbilical cord and lack of teeth), and completely uninformed of the customs of contemporary Western society. Perhaps the most disturbing misrepresentation in the film propagates is idea that Inuit elderly are nonchalantly left out in the open to be eaten alive by polar bears.

Sadly these inaccuracies plague all one hundred minutes of the sloppily cut film that was shot primarily in production studios with the use of props, green screens, awkward voice-overs, and b-roll for landscapes. When it comes to the sovereignty of the Inuit people, Savage Innocents is unforgivably crude and insulting, an embarrassment for Paramount. The only redeeming quality of this film lies in the fact that it is so glaringly artificial and chock full of Hollywood rubbish that it might not be taken seriously in propagating stereotypes.

Zachary Kunuk’s Atanarjuat, on the other hand, is an all-around magnificent experience, infusing ancient oral traditions and legend with stirring mythic drama. The film deeply humanizes the previously caricatured Inuit image with employment of an indigenous cast, writers, and director. Kunuk conveys real emotion, humor, sadness, regret, love, jealousy, anger, and forgiveness in a palpable spirit of authentic Inuit life. The level of sophistication, attention to subtle nuances, and ingenuity of the cinematography embolden the film’s spiritual experience. Kunuk’s shot placement immerses the audience into each scene, forcing viewers to share the experiences of the characters instead of speculating like zoo-goers from a distance. Instead of an Inuit tale constructed by Western perception, Atanarjuat “compels non-Inuit spectators to think differently, not only about what constitutes indigenous content in films and more conventional representations of Native Americans in cinematic history, but also about indigenous visual aesthetics” (Raheja 1168). The film was a box-office success in Canada, won nearly twenty prestigious awards, and stands today as a triumph toward reclaiming visual sovereignty for the Inuit people.”

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