Digital Shamanism* and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

Posted by Cara Mumford on Thursday, November 17, 2016 Under: Raindance Postgraduate

Avva's tells his story while the spirit of Little Avva watches © IsumaTV

(*My use of the phrase “digital shamanism” comes from this quote by Gillian Robinson (2008: 8): “Kunuk and Norman Cohn together invent a new form of visual memory, using high-definition video as digital shamanism to envision this story with so much clarity as to allow them to travel through time.”)

As part of the introductions in my Raindance Postgraduate cohort, someone asked the inevitable question about our top rated films. Since we have been asked in the first module to reflect on a significant film that has influenced us as filmmakers, I chose my top 10 films through that particular lens. Looking at that list for this assignment, I asked myself if I should I reflect on “Spear,” the most recent addition—a dance film unlike any other I’ve seen that feels like performance art full of symbolism and ceremony—or “Melancholia”—stunning, cerebral, and visceral—even though I find myself arguing in my head with von Trier on many matters, from issues of sexuality to personal worldviews. Or maybe the first film that inspired my filmmaking, the experimental “Meshes of the Afternoon” by Maya Deren. Ultimately I decided to focus on “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.” This is a film, born from a shared worldview, that makes me feel, think, and create art in response. It has impacted me in the way that I want my films to have impact on others.

“The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” is based on real events in 1922 that were literally written down within the journals of Knud Rasmussen. It is a post-contact story, a story of the loss of cultures, the story of Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen’s encounter with an Inuit family group, the story of a shaman (Avva) giving up his spirit guides so that his people can eat, the story of a young woman (Apak) whose connection to the spirit world allows her to see what others can’t: that life will never be the same again. This is the film that transformed me.


Apak, Avva's daughter © IsumaTV

“The Journals of Knud Rasmussen” is the second film by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk, a Canadian-Danish co-production released in 2006. His first film, “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner,” based on a 2000 year old legend and filmed completely in Inuktituk (the Inuit language), took the world by surprise and won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2001. “The Journals” did not succeed within the industry in the way that “The Fast Runner” did, but it exposed a raw part of Indigenous history in Canada and succeeded as a movie of catharsis for me and many other Indigenous artists I know. 

In the New York Times review of “The Journals,” the team behind the film, Kunuk and his partner Norman Cohn, were quoted as saying that their films “don’t provide answers, they visualize questions” (Alioff, 2006). According to Kunuk, “[The Journals] tries to answer two questions that haunted me my whole life: Who were we? And what happened to us?” (IsumaTV). Cohn expanded on those questions in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival: 
As soon as we finished “Fast Runner,” we started researching this question of why people would take a sophisticated, 4,000-year-old intellectual and spiritual system that worked and had [them] at the top of the food chain and suddenly replace it with a completely foreign system, and end up 40 or 50 years later at the bottom of the food chain. Why would these people do this? (Giese, 2006)
So those were their question for this film. How did they intend to visualize this? “It turns out that one of the most famous anthropological accounts of people in the process of doing this was recorded in Zach’s backyard” (ibid).

Cohn was referring, of course, to the journals of Knud Rasmussen. Specifically, two of the 26 volumes of the Report of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924 that focused “entirely on the Inuit of Igloolik, who are the great grandparents of Zach and our cast and crew” (ibid). Rasmussen collected stories of the north to “preserve” them, believing that the cultures he encountered were ending. Avva chose to gift Rasmussen with his story, knowing that such a gift meant loss to him and his family in his time, but he was gifting this essential story to his descendants in the future (Robinson, 2008).

In her book, “Native American Drama: A Critical Perspective,” Christy Stanlake talks about Platiality as a distinctive Indigenous discourse that interconnects with concepts of Storying, Tribalography and Survivance (a neologism conceived by Gerald Vizenor that combines survival and resistance). The term Platiality was originally coined by Una Chaudhuri, author of “Staging Place: The Geography of Modern Drama, to mean “a recognition of the signifying power and political potential of specific places” (5). In Indigenous narratives, platiality expands to include “concepts of character, belonging, spirituality, time, and language,” which “all emanate from interrelated concepts of place” (Stanlake, 2009: 40). 


Travel by dogsled © IsumaTV

In Kunuk’s films, the vast Arctic landscape is not exoticized but shown as integral to the culture of the Inuit people, a vigorous expression of the importance of land in Indigenous narratives with specific connections to time and place. In “The Journals,” we see the cultural negotiations of the Inuit to survive in their environment. The day scenes take place on the land with it's wide, white vistas, while the night scenes use the natural light of the qulliq (the seal oil lamp) to provide the only source of light inside the igloos, giving a radically different, more intimate sense of place. While the specifics of place are important in telling the story of “The Journals,” however, it is the fluid concepts of time inherent to Indigenous cultures that is crucial in understanding the importance of the story.

According to Cohn, “The whole purpose of the film is to give [Avva] a voice that he himself tried to send into the future” (Alioff, 2006). Avva’s intention was to survive so that his people could continue to exist. Using the power of his shamanism, he sent his voice into the future by telling his story to Rasmussen. His voice was heard through his descendant Pakak Innuksuk, who plays his own ancestor in the film, "delivering an uncanny stream-of-consciousness monologue taken from the real Knud Rasmussen’s transcription of the historical Avva’s words" (ibid).

Kunuk also incorporates Stanlake’s concept of Storying by weaving together stories of Avva’s family, Inuit shamanism, and colonial Christianity with entries from Knud Rasmussen’s journal. The film places Inuit ways of storying the world at the centre of the film as a form of sovereignty. The discourse of Tribalography, which encourages people to thread their own stories and histories into the stories and histories of other people, is also apparent in “The Journals” by incorporating the actors’ relationships to the story through knowledge passed down from their grandparents. Each actor’s sense of their ancestors also affected filmmaking choices made by Kunuk and his co-director Norman Cohn, adding to the authenticity and the richness of the story, made possible by Kunuk’s collaborative process.


Cast reviewing the script on set © IsumaTV

The use of Inuktituk in “The Journals,” which is important outside of the film for cultural restoration, also adds to authenticity within the film. And the untranslated songs “work on the audience as pure sound and emotion” (Fischer, 2006), affecting us on a deeper level, allowing us to access the belief in spirit needed to follow the main characters of Avva and his daughter Apak on their different spiritual journeys. That incorporation of spirit is one of the elements that prevents the film from simply presenting the view of cultural anthropologist Rasmussen, whose journal was used as the foundation of this story. Kunuk succeeds in taking a written historical document of colonization and using it to lay claim to his peoples own historical narratives and imagery. As Kunuk states on the Isuma website: “We recover the past not to change it then but to change it now… to avoid making our own present a shameful past for future generations.” I see this as just one example of Survivance.

I, personally, am intrigued by the idea of being inspired by a European text but, while centering that in the title, the Indigenous histories are centered in the story. This is something I have been inspired to try myself. In my short film “Ecstasy” (a calling card for my dance feature), I use elements of “The Ecstasy of Rita Joe,” a stage play about an Indigenous woman written by George Ryga, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, as well as the ballet based on that play choreographed by Norbert Vesak, a settler Canadian of Eastern European descent, but I am bringing in Indigenous interpretations, dance, and lived experience to deepen, Indigenize, and decolonize the source material.

The structure of the "The Journals," described as “lumpy” in Variety’s review of the film (Felperin, 2006), does not follow the three-act structure that is often the convention in mainstream films. Instead, it follows the rhythm of life, alternating between storytelling around the fire at night, stories that contain not just histories but deep Inuit knowledge and worldviews, with scenes of travel, dancing, and singing in between, giving the audience time to absorb the previous story and understand the relevance of that older history to the history we are watching in the film. These scenes of life are shot in long takes with only diegetic sound, creating a feeling of immersing the viewer in Inuit life, encouraging a contemplative approach to the viewing.

The film continues in this manner, building consistently in intensity as the group approaches Igloolik and the weather worsens, culminating in the final two scenes that contain nearly a century of the gut-wrenching grief of colonization. First is the scene where Apak breaks Shamanic law by eating a piece of the animal that is forbidden, marking her conversion to Christianity as final. My reaction was described so well by Lukin-Linklater (2008: 114): “As I watched hungry Inuit kneel and submit, I felt my insides unraveling a deep grief, a memory I did not know I had.”



That upsetting scene is followed by the most poignant, and last, scene in the film when Avva banishes his spirit relatives so that he, too, can accept Christianity in order to feed his people. The spirits’ haunting cries of his name, “pronounced A-u-a, sounds like an echo. As though his spirit relatives call his name again and again, mourning the loss of their human counterpart, crying after their banishment, while generations of Inuit also begin to utter his name, grieving the loss of their last shaman. This echoing is significant, in that Avva’s name comes to hold power locked within memory that is mostly unknown” (ibid). I believe that the echoing of his name at the end of the film, represents the power of his name rediscovered and resonating within the resurgence of Inuit culture.


Avva watches spirits leave © IsumaTV

Interestingly, the only non-diegetic sound in the film, apart from some brief narration by Apak, comes at the very beginning and ending of the film. The film opens with a recording of an Inuit ayaya song, as Avva and his family prepare to pose for a photograph. Amidst all of the on-screen songs by the Inuit throughout the film is also Knud Rasmussen (when asked to sing one of his songs) singing “M'Appari tutt'amor,” an aria from Friedrich von Flotow's opera Martha. His singing transitions to a recording of the aria sung by Caruso being played on a phonograph in the following scene. It is this recording that then plays over the end credits, which also include photographs of the real Avva and Apak and family as the credits roll. The ayaya songs are over; colonization is complete.

In a scene just before Apak joins the Christian Inuit, Avva says to Apak, “You see something ahead of us” and asks her to speak of the future she has foreseen. She answers with, “Whatever more I could tell you wouldn’t help us.” I believe what she foresaw was both the inevitability of colonization at that time, and the retelling of her family’s story through digital shamanism in this one.

This is the film that began my journey to becoming not just as a filmmaker but an Indigenous filmmaker.

Bibliography

Alioff, M. (2006) Falling Forward Into an Icy World. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/19/movies/19alio.html (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

Chaudhuri, U. (1995) Staging place: The geography of modern drama. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Felperin, L. (2006) Review: “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.” Available at: http://variety.com/2006/film/markets-festivals/the-journals-of-knud-rasmussen-1200513533/ (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

Fischer, M. (2006) TIFF review: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Available at: https://www.isuma.tv/sites/default/files/attachments/CinematicalJKR060909.pdf (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

Giese , R. (2013) Paradise lost. Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/arts/tiff/features/tiffknud.html (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

IsumaTV. (2009) Learning materials: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen. Available at: https://www.isuma.tv/node/6164/ (Accessed: 9 November 2016).

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2006) Directed by Zacharias Kunuk, Norman Cohn [Film]. Montreal: Isuma Distribution International. Available at http://www.isuma.tv/thejournalsofknudrasmussen (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Lukin-Linklater, T. (2008) “Avva’s Telling,” in Robinson, G. (ed.) The Journals of Knud Rasmussen: A Sense of Memory and High definition Inuit Storytelling. Montreal: Isuma Publications, pp. 109–114.

Robinson, G. (2008) “Introduction: Who Is Our Storyteller?,” in Robinson, G. (ed.) The Journals of Knud Rasmussen: A Sense of Memory and High definition Inuit Storytelling. Montreal: Isuma Publications, pp. 7–10.

Stanlake, C. (2010) Native American drama: A critical perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

In : Raindance Postgraduate 



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