Review: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen

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As unconventional as the storytelling may be, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen is indeed a powerful recollection of not just a relevant event in the history of Inuit people, but also a stunning social document on who they were as a people not more than 100 years ago.

Atarnajuat director Kunuk and his partner Cohn shot this film digitally out of necessity, since the harsh cold of Igloolik and Baffin Island severely hinders traditional film cameras. This is unique because it puts this film at the forefront of technology (very few feature length movies are shot entirely on digital cameras), but the stories themselves remain decidedly quaint, folksy, and observant of the past.

Journals is based on the real journals kept by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, who lived with an Inuit family for a time in the 1920s to learn about their lifestyle and their ways. What he witnessed was the end of (or at least the beginning of the end of) Inuit shamanism along with many of their main religious beliefs. As the white man encroached on the northern lands, he brought Christianity and converted many if not all Inuit along the way.

Kunuk is a natural storyteller, as is obvious from his first two major features, one based on legend, the other on history. His films are such an introduction to Inuit culture that it's difficult to discern what you are most interested in when you sit in the theater: anthropology or filmmaking. It seems to me that in a small way Kunuk is like a shaman when he creates these films. They preserve for eternity the stories that they hold. In essence, he is protecting the Inuit culture by summoning the spirits that help the actors achieve their characters. His next work should be a modern piece, but not a documentary (see my review of Kiviaq vs. Canada).

Apart from some elements that seemed way out of place (sunglasses, rings on the fingers of some Inuit women before Christianity, etc.) the story is amazing but does require some attention. Kunuk's storytelling meanders around the minutiae of Inuit life before it actually gets to the story, some of which involves a woman having sex with the spirit of her dead husband. What is it with Canadian movies that this has to be a recurring theme?

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