This segment of MovieJourneys is concerned with the far north of the Americas and the indigenous people who, at least metaphorically, are the nearest relatives of the peoples who crossed from Asia to Alaska and began their migrations to the tip of South America. I wanted to find movies that evoked the harsh realities of the Arctic region at the top of North America. Both of the movies featured below were made in Canada. For other movies on the first Nations and the earliest settlers, see Frontier Canada.

Nanook of the North  (1922) – Documentary

This silent film holds a legendary position as the first documentary released to theaters as a feature.  Robert Flaherty was an inexperienced filmmaker when he went to the northern regions of Canada and followed an Inuit family on their seasonal migrations.  The central figure in the film is an Eskimo named Nanook, a likable man with an even more likable family.  In a fetching scene at the beginning, he paddles his kayak up to a rocky shore and helps his young son out of the craft.  Out of the single opening in the animals skin deck comes his wife, an older and a younger woman, and a puppy.  Life is relatively pleasant for the family in the warmer months when they are in a community with others.  But when the cold months set in they set off on their own to hunt and fish on the ice.  They are seen harpooning a walrus, spearing salmon, and pulling a huge seal up through a small hole in the ice.  Traveling with a dog sled and a pack of very unruly canines, they cross great stretches of white desolation and make a snow-block igloo for the night.  They have a fire inside but must keep the temperature under freezing to prevent melting.  At the end, they are caught in a storm and seek refuge in an abandoned igloo.  They shed their clothes and crawl under their animal pelts, leaving the dogs outside in the frigid night.  Wiki lists a number of controversies associated with the film, including the staging of events and misrepresentation of real-life characters.  Flaherty has maintained that there were no rules for documentary films back then and that he did what he felt was necessary to capture the spirit of his subjects.

The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) – 2002 – Inuit

This is a kind of Inuit Iliad, or an arctic Odyssey.  And like its forebears, it is difficult to follow on first exposure.  The video box says an unknown shaman has placed a curse on a small nomadic community.  I missed that part, but the playing out of the drama between warriors and their women has a familiar ring.  It is a brutal world, everyone looks cold most of the time, and they kick their dogs.  Male-female issues are bound to arise in the close quarters of an igloo.  There is nothing in the film to suggest it might not be happening many millennia ago.  No English is spoken, it is all subtitles.  In the end, an old grandmother exercises the ultimate authority of her station and calls for an end to the killing and the lies.  She banishes the offending parties.

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