|For their second feature, filmmakers Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn return once again to the frozen landscape of northern Canada, home of the Iglulik Inuit. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, sort of an anthropological sidebar to Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, is based on the detailed journals of the Danish explorer who, in the early 1920s, traveled across the Canadian Arctic to collect data on the social organization and intellectual culture of the Inuit communities. More importantly, he wanted to document the shamanic practices and taboos before they were converted to Christianity, which specifically forbade them from even mentioning their former beliefs.|
Christianity, which had already spread like a virus through the Greenland Inuit, was only beginning to stake a claim in Northern Canada when Rasmussen and his team arrived. The film covers the period that Rasmussen spent with the shaman Avva, who had fled south with his family after missionaries obtained a stronghold in their home community. Avva, a strong believer in the traditions and rituals of his people, strives to protect his family from conversion – a tradeoff that will ease their struggle for survival in an environment where food is scarce, but at a devastating cost. (So much for Christian charity.)
Rasmussen, who spoke the language fluently (he was half Inuit), first met Avva in 1922 (coincidentally, the same year Robert Flaherty shot his staged documentary, Nanook of the North), and much of the text in the film comes directly from his journals. In one of the film’s lengthiest sequences, Avva describes a staggering list of rules and taboos that were put into effect after his somewhat miraculous birth, giving us a glimpse at just how much of their identity they had to sacrifice when pledging allegiance to the man on the cross.
Much of the story pivots around Apak, Aava’s headstrong daughter who uses her shamanic powers to have dream-sex with her deceased husband, and who ultimately forges the family’s future path. Rebellious to a degree, she’s also the strongest character in the clan, and newcomer Leah Angutimarik is a natural talent whose performance (her screen debut) is one of quiet passion.
The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is gift to the Inuit, with Kunuk giving back to his people the very words and stories that were taken from them decades earlier. That several cast members are direct descendents of Avva makes the film that much more powerful. Though the running time is half of that of The Fast Runner, there’s less of a formal narrative, and the action advances at a glacial pace. Still, this quiet, moving portrait in all of its digital beauty is one of the festival’s real treasures, and a film that finds tremendous warmth in the coldest of climates.