It is no coincidence that the great era of polar exploration--embracing the expeditions of Robert Peary around the turn of the century and Ernest Shackleton in the teen years--parallels the birth of the cinema and the earliest forms of nonfiction feature filmmaking. The ability of the moving camera to bring the most remote and sparsely populated areas of the world to the teeming masses of the new urban cinemas found its most compelling manifestation in the icy and dangerous reaches of the polar regions. The recent revival of interest in the filmed records of Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition aboard the Endurance has sparked a renewed interest in those early documents of stark landscapes and resourceful peoples. This series surveys films about the Arctic--ethnographic, fictional, and hybrids of the two--from across the past century and into the newest one. Attracting the talents of major independent directors and emerging Native filmmakers, each focuses on the natural beauty and indigenous cultures of this fascinating region.
HFA thanks award-winning travel writer Lawrence Millman of the Explorer’s Club (New England chapter), who helped to organized this program, and the Harvard Travelers Club.
Live Piano Accompaniment
January 24 (Thursday) 7 pm
Directed by Robert Flaherty
US 1922, 16mm, silent, b/w, 69 min.
Considered by many to be the “father of documentary film,” Robert Flaherty spent more than two years in Canada’s Hudson Bay region, where he lived among its indigenous people, filming their humanity and their battles against the elements and then showing the footage back to them. In this timeless landmark portrait, Flaherty captures the terror and grandeur of Arctic landscapes and seascapes as he imparts vitality to scenes of Eskimo hunting excursions and quiet family life through his active and warm involvement.
Introduced by author Lawrence
January 25 (Friday) 7 pm
January 27 (Sunday) 7 pm
Based on two books on Eskimo culture by Danish journalist, writer, and explorer Peter Freuchen, W. S. Van Dyke’s astonishing film was most likely the first feature to employ an Eskimo cast and a sound track centered around Native Americans speaking their own language. Mala, an accomplished hunter and the hero of the film, has been betrayed by an evil white trader captain (Freuchen). He is arrested for the captain’s murder but manages to escape into the wilderness. For all the dramatic intrigue of the tale, it is the fascinating scenes of life among the Eskimo hunters--including caribou, walrus, and polar-bear hunts--and details of daily domestic activities such as igloo building that predominate in the film. It was all shot over an arduous, 27-month period during which the crew’s equipment-laden whaling schooner was frozen into the sea.
January 25 (Friday) 9:15 pm
January 28 (Monday) 7 pm
January 31 (Thursday) 9:15 pm
Directed by Vincent Ward
Canada/France/Australia/UK 1992, 35mm, color, 95 min.
With Patrick Bergin, Anne Parillaud, Jason Scott Lee
Maps, x-rays, and military aerial photographs form the network of resonances on which this epic story of human relations is written. The narrative, told in flashback, begins in the 1930s in a remote settlement, where a young boy--half Eskimo, half Euro—becomes fascinated by the maps of a visiting British cartographer. When the cartographer brings the boy to Montreal to treat his tuberculosis, Avik encounters not only the wonders of modern civilization but a soul mate: a young girl--half Indian, half white--who is a fellow patient. Fate brings the couple back together years later during World War II, when Avik flies missions from Britain over Germany as a photographer. What might be mere melodrama in lesser hands becomes an extravagant flight of imaginative vision and emotional depth for New Zealand director Ward, who crafts here some of cinema’s most unique and moving love scenes.
January 26 (Saturday) 7 pm
Directed by Anastasia Lapsui and Markku Lehmuskallio
Finland 2000, 35mm, color, 90 min.
Russian, Nenets, and Finnish with English subtitles
Dazzling contrasts between snowy, horizonless expanses and the lush, seasonal vegetation of the tundra form the backdrop to this unusual film, which focuses on the nomadic Nenets people of Siberia. Director and screenwriter Anastasia Lapsui, a native Nenets, weaves legends together with her own experiences to create stories that describe the life of her people in seven “songs.” The first and last are documents of the ritual sacrifice of a reindeer and a woman singing to her child, while the five central vignettes include dramatic depictions of the harsh effects Soviet communism had on the group’s age-old social order. The world’s first feature film in the Nenets language, Seven Songs from the Tundra was produced almost entirely by ordinary Nenets people--teachers, hunters, and fishermen--who shared the desire to bring their stories to life.
January 26 (Saturday) 9 pm
January 28 (Monday) 9 pm
Directed by Philip Kaufman
US 1974, 35mm, color, 109 min.
With Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, Louis Gossett, Jr.
This gripping adventure was filmed by director Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, on location on Baffin Island, in the Arctic Archipelago of Canada’s Nunavut (formerly Northwest Territory), using a cast of native Inuit. Based on a true story and the subsequent novel by James Houston, the film relates the encounter in 1896 of an isolated group of Eskimos with three whalers who have been marooned on the ice after their ship is destroyed. Into the natural rhythms of the Eskimo life cycle--depicted through religious rituals, hunting practices, and recreational pursuits--the foreigners introduce gambling, booze, theft, and their special variations of sex. The natural harmonies of a mutually cooperative society guided by the laws of nature eventually come into full conflict with the rugged individualism of the West.
Introduced by author Lawrence Millman
January 30 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Directed by Friedrich Dalsheim, with Knud Rasmussen
Denmark 1933, 35mm, b/w, 72 min.
Inuit with English intertitles
Famed Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen passed away shortly after the filming of this absorbing documentary on Eskimo life in the Angmagssalik district of Greenland. Although the film presents a fictional scenario--the rivalry between two Eskimo hunters as they compete for the hand of the same girl, culminating in a spectacular battle--it is the richly detailed ethnographic elements portraying the daily life of the culture that provide the most compelling aspects of this classic work.