Knud Rasmussen & Manufactured Landscapes

Knud Rasmussen & Manufactured Landscapes

After the overwhelming success of Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner, the first all-Inuit directed, written and acted film, director Zacharias Kunuk and creative soulmate Norman Cohn’s second feature, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen has a lot to live up to.

Atanarjuat won six Genies, the Golden Camera at Cannes and an Independent Spirit Award for Best Foreign Film. Based on Inuit legend, it told the story of an evil shaman who instills bitter rivalry in the community of Igloolik. The film was slick, richly conceived and endlessly entertaining, a favourite with critics and audiences alike.

Knud Rasmussen is a very different animal. With it, Kunuk decided not to mine legend, but to approach a real-life figure, Ava, the last great Inuit shaman. When Danish cultural explorer Knud Rasmussen arrives in his community in 1922, Ava and his troubled daughter, Apak, agree to lead his men to Igloolik. Along the way, the grand old man spills his life story and beliefs for the anthropologists. As he does so, it becomes increasingly clear that encroaching modernity will doom Ava’s old ways.

Viewers expecting the mythic drama of The Fast Runner will be frustrated to discover that Kunuk’s feature burns very slowly. The majority of the film is spent in the close quarters of igloos, with the director’s camera clings snugly to the faces of Ava’s family. There is a lot of talk—of creeping starvation and departing gods—and many shots of sleds being pulled through the vast, northern whiteness.

While Kund Rasmussen is beautifully shot, not all of the talking (especially Ava’s) is particularly absorbing. Apak is by far the more interesting character, caught as she is between the old and the new, possessed of shamanistic vision but using it only to summon up the lusty body of her dead husband. Unfortunately, we don’t really get to know Apak well enough (though the scenes of passion with her husband’s ghost are well-realized). Nor do we really get inside the minds of the Danish.

The whole film passes like a strange dream. Only at the end, does the story’s true import become clear. When the team reaches Igloolik, we arrive to a Christian service in medias res. The Inuit converts are led by a former shaman, a man who has traded one set of totems and taboos for another. The Christians have food. All the starving party needs to do is come and take communion. The decision that Ava and Apak must make is heartbreaking. But, as you marvel at the beauty and power of these final scenes, you can’t help but ask if the lead-up could have been more successful.

For viewers blessed with great resevoirs of patience only.

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The recepient of awards for Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and Best Canadian Documentary at last week’s Atlantic Film Festival, Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes will hopefully secure the audience it deserves. The film takes the work of Toronto photographer Edward Burtynsky as its subject, but don’t expect your typical artist-at-work documentary.

To the uninitiated, Burstynsky shoots industrial sites the way Ansel Adams shot the landscapes of Yosemite National Park. Your reaction to a Burtynsky photograph is always a complex one: you begin by marveling at the beauty and the scale of the images and then, slowly, you succumb to the creeping realization that you’re looking at the devastation of the planet’s natural resources. Capturing that effect and transposing the power of Burtynsky’s photographs to film was Baichwal’s primary aim.

For the most part, she is wildly successful. Manufactured Landscapes takes Burtynsky’s images of China as a starting point, using the motion picture camera’s unique ability to exist in and explore space and time, communicating the scale of the Three Gorges Dam development or China’s new giga-factories in a new way. This is a film about environmental crisis that shuns the Power Point presentation or the political slogan. For that, Baichwal should be applauded. Though she never quite explicitly conveys the connection we all have to what’s occurring in China, Baichwal has made a doc that respects its audience’s conscience and intelligence. A must see.