Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Is "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen" a bio pic or not?

Rebecca Johnson says...
Here is my question. Is The Journals of Knud Rasmussen a bio pic or not? If it IS, then what kind of biopic IS it? The open scene gives the film a slightly different title from the one on the box. Rather than saying "The Journal of Knud Rasmussen", it says, "A series of extracts from the Journals of Knud Rasmussen". Does that make a difference?
The thing that is fascinating to me is that it is indigenous... and though the title suggests the film is about Knud, all the encounters, even the ones involving him, are presented from the viewpoint of the Inuit people rather than from the view point Knud. maybe this is obserational realism, but it has a very distinctive feel, and I am not sure what to call it.
Leslie Felperin says in the article quoted below,  "[The] pic lacks the rich, human drama that distinguished "Atanarjuat," prehoned and culled as it was from Inuit folklore. By contrast, Rasmussen feels more like a conventional anthropological pic with a docudrama veneer."
Film Reviews: Toronto: "The Journals of Knud Rasmussen"
Variety 404:8 (9 October 2006-15 October 2006), p. 73
I am not saying that you couldn't make an argument for this being a biopic, especially given the title, but Rasmussen disappears quickly from the film.  Usually, we watch biopic protagonists become the heroic figure in the film and this doesn't happen here. 

Even the fact that Rasmussen is of mixed heritage, and so the stories he chronicles are the stories of his own people, wouldn't be enough, I think, to make this a biopic.

The term observational realism is something that happens between the viewer and what is happening on screen.  So I don't think this term would apply in this context.



  1. Yes, it is interesting that people loved atanarjuat, and most DON'T love "The Journals". I think there is something more interesting going on the responses, and that it links in some ways to the limited ways that 'settler' narratives run up against the inuit stories. It is very easy for western viewers to watch Atanarjuat as something like a Tristan und Isolde narrative with two lovers being separated by other forces. But when students came back to UVic after placements up in Iqualuit, they often talked about how the Inuit saw very different things in the film than did the western viewers (way more emphasis on 'law', violations of law, and restoration of order.... way LESS emphasis on the romance/murder part of the story). From this perspective, Journals is much more connected to Atanarjuat, is far less 'anthropological' and is much more dramatic than a surface read reveals. I think the biopic category works here, but in a disruptive way, where the 'person' at the heart of the biopic is perhaps the daughter or the daughter/father. It is also a disruption of seeing one single person at the heart of the film, and seeing instead a web of relations as the 'bio'. Not sure. for sure it is NOT really documentary or anthropological, though it runs through the surface of those forms (in a way that is similarly quite radical). Fun one to think about! I find the failure of the film to grap mainstream attention as interesting as anything else. It is a way more radical film, I think, in terms of its invitation to the viewers to really UNDERSTAND something different about themselves and others.

  2. How about if we say Knud is at the heart of the film. He is the protagonist. He is collecting the stories. By doing so, he is telling people, "this is who I am".

    Now if he understands the stories in a different way than the storyteller, or differently than the point of view of the main actors in the story line then that is OK. The myths are not understood by Knud as they are by people more embedded in the Inuit culture, and that is for the viewer to understand and make what of it, s/he will.

    This morning I was walking over to the university and thinking about this problem of point of view, wondering if doing a small segment of film analysis, maybe on the opening or some other sequence would help me get a handle on the movie. Into my mind popped the _Wide Sargasoo Sea_, that story that gives a voice to the mad woman in the attic. Is Knud giving a voice here to his own heritage, even if he his writing can't pick up the colouring, the meaning, the nuance of the myths he is capturing.

    Just an idea for me to think about.

    We are going to look at I'M Not Here, Bob Dylan's biopic tomorrow in class. The readings are telling me that the biopic is a fiction, but by undertanding the fiction we can get very close to understanding the real Bob Dylan, which is an intriguing argument. And maybe this is true of Knud Rasmussen, and so it could be called his biopic.

  3. Intelligent, original questions & intriguing lines of analsyis based on challenging films. I am particularly interested in your definition of 'observational realism.' Perhaps something to develop in your final exam essay?

  4. There is something about interpretation/judgment/practice that intrigues me in this film. Or rather, I am intrigued by the ways the film invites us to consider collaboration and community in a different way. Here, I am thinking a bit about Wittgenstein's observation that propositions have meaning only "in their use". So, I am thinking about the way the film invites us not to judge (at least, invites us not to engage in the usual modernist job of description and explanation), but to enter into community with it. We are situated in so many scenes here which are less to be explained than to be experienced. But, at the same time, the film makers are doing that using resources that have the feel of 'anthropology' or 'documentary'. That is, they have taken fragments of things (can we call it of observational realism), and put them along side eachother in a way that is... hmmm.... not montage in a straightforward way... more like a reminder to keep listening, watching, sharing etc. Several of the scenes (particularly ones with singing and drumming) go on for a long time [longer than you would have in a western film, where even the songs are doing narrative work to push the story forward]. Long enough that you are pushed out of narrative movement, and into the space of community. The camera work here seems to also situate the viewer IN the igloo, with disrupted views, partial views, as if you are there... with nothing but your own resources to make meaning/experience with. I think one can say it goes on too long, OR, one can ask about use, about the experience of being there for the singing, in the space. The space feels (in the film) inviting, and hospitable. but the singing at the end (of christian hymns translated into inuktitut?) is incredible painful. even if the words are incomprensible to western viewers in both cases, the one FEELS different than the other. Of course I think there is meaning in all that, but whatever meaning we pull out depends in part on our willingness to settle into USE... to attempt to enter into the communities as participants (and expressly as participants who are working with translation, miscommunication, gaps, fragments). the goal is not to find 'the answer' or 'the meaning', but to work with the challenges of building relations even in the face of the impossibility of full understanding. ... but with a better understanding of the stakes involved and the ways things outside our field of vision are playing their part. just some thoughts to explore...