The immediate thrill of Zacharias Kunuk‘s two films, 2001’s "The Fast Runner" and this year’s "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" (which he co-directed with Norman Cohn), is anthropological. For most of us, the world they depict is an exquisitely alien one of unbroken white vistas and pervasive, almost corporeal cold in which the idea eking out any existence, much less the culturally rich and happy one of "Journals," is hard to fathom. Kunuk knows this, and a good portion of the film is dedicated to taking in the otherwise unchronicled rhythms of traditional Inuit life.
"Journal" is in fact based on the work of an anthropologist â€” the half-Inuit, half-Danish Rasmussen, who in the 1920s traveled the Canadian Arctic gathering details for maps and documenting tribal customs and folklore of different tribes. He published some of the definitive research texts on Inuit culture, which at the time of film’s setting, 1922, was already being threatened by encroaching European culture and Christian missionaries. The film’s central pair, the great shaman Avva and his beautiful, willful daughter Apak, live at historical turning point for their people.
At the beginning of the film, Rasmussen meets up with Avva and his family. He has with him two other Danes (one played by "Pusher"‘s Kim Bodnia) who are hoping to negotiate travel to Iglulik, where Avva is from and where he left after the community converted to Christianity. And after that, Rasmussen disappears almost unheralded, which is one of the other exciting, and sometimes irritating aspects of Kunuk’s work. He’s a self-taught filmmaker, and his approach has an abandon and a disregard for typical narrative signposting and structure that can be rewarding and can other times just confusing.
"Journals" may not be as coherent or accessible as "The Fast Runner," but it is still a fascinating and deeply compassionate film. Pakak Innukshuk in particular as Avva is a figure of quiet tragedy, the lone holdout standing by traditions that are thousands of years old and suddenly unwanted. He delivers a wonderful monologue explaining how he became a shaman that shifts into a justification of the rules that have for so long governed how his people have lived, and he stands alone in the end, in what is one of the most mournful scenes in recent cinema.
The cast of "Journals" consists mainly of non-professional actors, and the film (shot on DV) sometimes has the feel of documentary, by necessity as much as intent â€” you can’t plan around a arctic blizzard. In another scene during a celebration, a character dressed up in a costume and dancing turns around and walks smack into the camera. Everyone laughs, but there’s never a feeling of breaking through the fourth wall. It’s more that the line between acting and living fades, and maybe it was never that important anyway.
Screens October 8 and 9 at Alice Tully Hall.
+ "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" (NYFF)