Monday, December 13, 2010

The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

File:The Journals of Knud rasmussen.jpg
Poster of The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
             The viewer of this film should not be lulled by the sense of extreme cold, or by the long silences that occur, into thinking that there is very little going on in The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, 2006, Canada).  Just the opposite is the case. The film is a rich and layered exploration of one of the key ideological thematics of the biopic: the shape and production of collective memory. For The Journals captures a shifting moment when two cultures clash, one of them making adjustments to ensure its survival.
            The first question to answer is whose biopic is this anyway?  The title of the film, in giving us the name of Knud Rasmussen, might suggest that he is the subject of the film.   Professionally, Knud Rasmussen (Jens Jorn Spottag) was an actor, an opera singer and finally an ethnographer, writing several books and lecturing about the Arctic as well as traversing it from coast to coast over six times. Significantly, he was himself the product of two cultures: his father was Danish and his mother, half Inuit:
Rasmussen spent his early years in Greenland among the Inuit where he learned from an early age to speak the language, ... hunt, drive dog sleds and live in harsh Arctic conditions. ‘My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with hunters. Hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me.’ (Knud Rasmussen, Wikipedia).

            While one might expect the film to foreground Rasmussen himself, those expectations go unfulfilled.  The focus is more obviously on various Inuit characters Rasmussen encountered in his journeys. A significant amount of screen time is devoted rather to the stories of three other great lives: the Inuit Shaman Aua (Pakak Innuksuk), his spirit-seeing daughter Apak (Leah Angutimarik) and his wife Orulu (Neeve Irngaut). And indeed, in its opening sequence, the film offers a title of the film that is (significantly) different from the one on the box. Rather than saying The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, it says, A Series of Extracts from the Journals of Knud Rasmussen. It is this series of extracts that is off-putting to some reviewers who feel this movie is more about the Inuit and less about Rasmussen.
            And yet, while the film certainly is built around these extracts, they are extracts that do come from Rasmussen’s journals.  It is thus his mind that remembers which of the details of the story will be written, his point of view that colours the words which were captured in writing. Though the extracts are reproduced as though told from the Inuit side of the accounts, they are also the accounts that had been captured and transcribed through the voice of the Danish/Inuit explorer, albeit in fragmentary form.
            The film is bookend with still photographs of the Inuit.  The film opens in 1912 with a group of Inuit characters gathering for a picture – as they hold still for the pose, the movement gradually freezes and the colour bleeds into the sepia tones of an old photograph.  The closing sequence of the film is also composed of a series of photographs, shots of the actors and shots of the real people whose stories we have heard.
            Rasmussen is recording the details and nuances of a way of life he is already familiar with.  In that way, he is deeply embedded in the film, even where he is not always visible. He will eat with the people, dance with them, enjoy their stories and be warmed by one of their women’s beds (Apak has more than two of his sewing thimbles).
He records their stories in a first hand way.  They directly face the camera, and tell about their lives, as Orulu does when she describes “the life of an old woman, bitter and sweet”—her biopic.  The shaman, Aua, also looks directly into the camera, his eyes looking through the lens, and gazing at someone I feel is just over my right shoulder. I am tempted to turn my head and see if it is Rasmussen behind me.  What I am hearing is a biopic inside of a biopic. 
In an early scene in the film, Rasmussen tells Aua that he has come to hear their songs, and learn of their stories and beliefs. Aua replies by telling him, “We believe happy people should not worry about hidden things. Our spirits are offended if we think too much.” Rasmussen says, “Yes, I understand”, and the group go on to share songs.  But as the film continues, and the people share food, play, and work, the shaman does indeed speak to Rasmussen of his beliefs.  He tells about the myths, the taboos, and the tribal customs that surrounded his own birth: if your wife is pregnant do not kill cut open a female walrus who is carrying her young;  the fur on a baby’s clothing must run sideways; only males can eat the harpooned catch of a young man’s first kill.  He introduces us to his shark spirit as well as other spirits, who have come from the land and the sea, spirits who are integral to how his tale will wind down.  Aua is one of the gravitational points in this film.
            Does that means I feel as though this is not Rasmussen’s story?  No.  It is his pen that writes, his mind that decides which of the details will be written, his point of view that colours the words that are spoken.  His journals suggest to us the risks of the ethnographer’s gaze, and yet attempt to share understanding between groups.  It is his voice that suggest the paths towards understanding.  He speaks Inuit, has grown up with the Inuit, and has hunted with the Inuit.  And in the film, both he and I are about to bear witness to one of his greatest moments: capturing the stories of a culture in transition.  The cost of that transition is seen powerfully in the lives of Aua, Apak and Orulo, but we know of that cost only through the extracts in Rasmussen’s journals, extracts written in his voice.
            Leslie Felperin says in that "[the] pic lacks the rich, human drama that distinguished ‘Atanarjuat,’ prehoned and culled as it was from Inuit folklore.” I do not agree with her .  In this film, I see rich, human drama in the ordinary lives of women.  I am mesmerized by Apak’s story, a female shaman with spirits of her own.  She has sex with her dead husband at nights.  She is warned to be “warmer to [her] second husband who was a gift to her because of the murder of her first husband. Her marriage represents a peaceful solution to a murder, but it is not a solution that works sexually for her.  When she asks if her husband has complained to her father the retort is, “No, everyone sees,” as everyone does when many people sleep in one igloo.  When confronted with sexuality gone wrong, she articulates her displeasure: “I [have] to do all the work with you myself.”  Others say about her, “That one is too beautiful for any man.”
            While the camera often remains lovingly on the face of the beautiful Apak, and while it certainly attends to women’s sexuality, that is not the only way in which women are visible in this film.  The film gives us snapshots of many women:  sewing, cooking, feeding babies who are packed on their backs with bits of food, parenting the children and being shamed into thinking that kind of work is not adult work.  I rest my case.  For me, this is a story rich in human drama, drama in a site that is usually seen as one that needs containment.  Women’s work and lives are woven into the fabric of this film, into the fabric of this collective memory.
            A film’s closure should frame the film’s biographical subject and it does so in a touching way.  To begin the closing sequence, Aua, the last shaman, walks toward us.  He then gazes past us but with downcast eyes and speaks to the three spirits who are standing in front of him.  He says, “I am grateful for all the help you have given me in my life.  But now I have to send my spirits away.  Now I need to follow the road of Jesus and you have to leave me.” Aua’s small community is starving to death.  One by one, they have left to accept food from the Jesus-believers.  But the Jesus-believers will not feed the people without their conversion to Christianity.  We have already learned of the taboos, and know that eating certain organ meats from prohibited animals will disassociate the shama Aua from his spirits. But in joining the Jesus believers to get nourishment, he will be required to eat the body of Christ (which will take the form not of bread and wine, but of those prohibited organ meats) and thus break that taboo.  So, of his own accord, Aua sends his spirits away, rather than join them in the spirit world (through starvation and death).
            Aua again tells them to leave.  But it is only at this moment in the film, in seeing the three characters before him, that we realize we have been blind.  The three characters have been visible to us the entire time, but we have not understood them to be spirits, presuming them simply to be other members of the community without speaking roles.  Even when they were described to us by Aua, we did not understand what we were seeing.  But now, we can see.
We can also see that they do not immediately leave.  He must send them away.  He tells them again, “So now, go away”.   They begin to turn from him to walk away.  They also begin to wail with sorrow.  There is over one minute of the wailing of the grief stricken spirits as they walk away from him, them looking back, him remaining firm, saying more loudly and angrily, “So now, go away.”  He is resigned to what must be done. The ground is undulating with wisps of drifting of snow between them and the three figures disappear toward a hill in the distance.  Finally they are only a speck of black, and the credits roll, alongside pictures of the Inuit, past and present.
            The last shot, a long shot showing a dog sled traveling over the snow has the voice over of the film’s ethnographer, Knud, singing a European operatic melody again as he did to them in the middle of an early party, one of Caruso’s famous love airas. The shot pulls back to an long shot and the camera tilts down with an extreme long shot, giving us a view from the heavens.  The sled is travelling toward home, to a people who have lost their former shamanic practice. Rasmussen’s operatic voice is heard crooning his last message:
[The Inuit] appeared to me, purest of love,
I discovered with my eyes this vision of delight.
Lovely [were they], that my hungry heart, in a snap, to [them] did fly.
I was hurt, I was charmed by that beauty from above.
Love is etched in my heart, and cannot now be erased.

Rasmussen’s biopic will continue to be mined for its attention to collective Inuit memory of the days when the Inuit practised shamanism.

1 comment:


    Is baptism essential to receive forgiveness of sins or is it simply an act of obedience?

    Mark 16:16 "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned. (NKJV)

    Baptism is essential to forgiveness of sins.

    Acts 2:38 Then Peter said to them , "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (NKJV)

    Baptism is not simply an act of obedience it is in order to receive forgiveness from sins.


    1. Attending worship services.
    2. Acts of evangelism.
    3. Financial support of the Lord's church.
    4. Doing good works.
    5. Loving your neighbor as yourself

    Simple acts of obedience are not in order to the forgiveness of sins.


    1. Faith: John 3:16
    2. Repentance: Acts 2:38, Acts 3:19
    3. Confession: Romans 10:9-10
    4. Immersion in water: Marl 16:16, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 22:16