Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Screening Nanook of the North (1922) in sultry, humid Singapore is like watching Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s Childhood Rivalry in Bali and New Guinea (1954) in cold, windy Ithaca, New York: everything turns inside out. We watch worlds that jut against our embodied experiences of temperature, vegetation, landscape.
It’s 32 celsius, or 90 degree Fahrenheit, and we’re watching Nanook cut pieces of snow out of the tundra to build an igloo.
As my students and I screen the 75 minute Criterion collection version of Nanook with the more contemporary, Hollywoodized soundtrack in the LT (lecture theater), another set of oppositions infiltrate the screening of Nanook’s kayak gliding between ice flows—loud noises of jackhammers pounding into the open air amphitheater of the communications building. Laborers upgrade the open space interior of the high tech, state of the art, gleaming communications building, their bamboo scaffolding tied together with rope occupying the atrium like a piece of postmodern sculpture.
But differences—whether in cinema or culture-- are often too obvious and too easy a way to create balance. Oppositions prevent immersion in the messiness of complexities and interactions, which imply movement across, a series of transversals and transcriptions.
In critical ethnography, as theorist David MacDougal has pointed out, oppositions frequently equate with separations, a basis for nationalism. He argues instead for a more liminal zone of collaboration, affinities, risk taking: exchange and change replace binaries. Historiography has moved in similar directions, away from event-centered, linear, causal history propelled by oppositions towards a more synchronic, multilayered, polyvocal structure.
I’m teaching a seminar called Documentary, Technology and the Environment here in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). Marshalling critical theory and historiography, the course splices together the history of international documentary with differing conceptions of the “environment” in contemporary media practice, from analog to user-centric web 2.0 social media forms. It considers the environment from multiple, fluid, intersecting vectors like landscape, cities, human rights, labor, water, food, genocide, technological change, land rights, indigeneous people, war.
Robert Flaherty shot the landmark ur-text of documentary, Nanook of the North in the Ungava Peninsula near Hudson Bay in Canada. He was 40 years old. He had spent his adult life exploring the arctic for minerals and mapping it for exploitation of natural resources by mining companies.
Nanook underscores debates in critical ethnography and historiography. As film scholar Michael Chanan points out, it presents a romanticized view of indigenous people, reducing complexities down to the facile opposition of man versus the environment. Nanook serves as a sort of Rosetta stone for debates about race, representation, documentary ethics, power, ethnography, history--and the representation of nature.
Culturally, nature overwhelms as large, mysterious, sublime, unknowable. So-called “primitives” offer a retreat into rugged individualism and spiritual enlightenment that industrialization strips away with its standardization, division of labor, and timetables.
This trope is not a relic of the 1920s, however.
I’ve seen trips to Sarawak, Malaysia advertized like tropical versions of the ideological formation imbedded in Nanook: walk through the jungle, hang out with Iban, Melanau and Berawan shamans, and “experience the unique energies of the land and revitalize yourself” one adventure travel company boasts. Instead of racialized imperialism, these trips (let’s be fair, you can find them all over the globe from tours of Iroquois longhouses in upstate New York to the trips college students take to save the Amazonian rainforest) function as the antidote to disembodied virtualized capital. Cyber-capital got you alienated? Try some Iban shaman and good jungle sweat.
Social media projects like Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, developed by Isuma Productions in Nunavut Canada , offer a different picture entirely. In this on-going documentation, film project, archive and public forum, the project conveners, Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and scientist Ian Munro, upload their documentation of Inuit elders stories, photos, videos and blogs of the ice and the tundra to chart climate change on a microlevel from the point of view of people who live in the arctic and know it intimately--not Al Gore or remote scientists looking at data while based in the US. Live webchats engage across time zones and latitudes. You can eat mee goreng (spicy Malay fried noodles)from a Boon Lay wet market hawker stall in Singapore and join the Skype conversation on your netbook.
Some scholars, like Fatimah Toby Roning, have pointed out the racism imbedded in Nanook of the North, as it makes a spectacle of killing and eating animals and the hardness of life of peoples in the arctic. It puts “natives” on display for easy consumption by white spectators. Nanook died of starvation two years after the theatrical debut.
Other scholars, like anthropologists Jay Ruby, Ted Carpenter, and MacDougal, point out that the film was collaborative: Flaherty not only spoke Inuit, but depended on Allakalariak (Nanook’s real name) and others to develop shooting ideas, and even develop the film stock itself.
Flaherty needed the skills and knowledge of the Inuit for his survival in the north, just like I depend on my students and colleagues here in Singapore to help me navigate the local dialects of Singlish terms, endless confusing acronyms (like WKWSCI…look back and you will figure it out), and different academic customs (my name is considered long and hard to pronounce so I have morphed into Prof Z here).
Flaherty took over 1,000 photographs of the arctic and its people. He was one of the first collectors of Inuit drawings. As historian Erik Barnouw observed, Nanook of the North’s cinematography, with its emphasis on vast expanses of land and ice, derives from these drawings. Later, anthropologist Ted Carpenter republished these drawings in a book called Comock the Eskimo, based on a story Robert Flaherty often told and which was the basis for Nanook of the North.
Scholars and programmers frequently debate about the “real” version of Nanook of the North. It is a concept implying stasis, a unified authentic place outside of historical change and complexity.
This invocation of “the real” is a politically and philosophically problematic phrase I have heard often in reference to South East Asia. Malaysia advertizes in the New Yorker magazine as “the real Asia.” I have heard some friends back in the States confess they would not be too interested in visiting us in Singapore because it is not “the real Asia” -- it is too clean, too organized, and too easy to get around. Perhaps the "real Asia" means the "Asia " (not specific countries or regions) where jungles offer sublimity and indigeneous people don’t Twitter. A colleague here at NTU told me last week that global cities are the real Asia, not kampongs and shamans. Another told me that global cities are marketing constructions for western IT investment...
This question of the original or "real" version of a film is a common problem with silent films that were often recut and adapted by projectionists for local situations. The earlier, almost legendary but lost 1914 version of Nanook, originally intended as a travelogue to accompany Flaherty’s lectures, exploded when Bob’s cigarette ash fell on the nitrate stock. Distributed by Paramount theatrically, the 1922 version had a honky tonk song called "Nanook of the North." I found the sheet music for it in the Flaherty archives at Columbia University. One of the first documentaries with a central character, the film was screened around the world, including Thailand.
But experimental cine clubs in Europe also celebrated the film as a significant work of cinematic poetry at a time of the consolidation of both the Hollywood studios and classical Hollywood narrative style. Robert and Frances Flaherty, his wife, spent their lives not only fighting the Hollywood system but trying to figure out a way to function and survive outside of it.
In the late 1940s, the film was recut and shortened down to about 45 minutes. These truncated versions frequently appear in university film collections. In the 1970s, Willard Van Dyke, the film curator at the influential Museum of Modern Art and then president of International Film Seminars (IFS), initiated a restoration of Nanook and the development of a new score.
IFS is the renowned retreat and think tank for independent film. Frances Flaherty, Bob’s widow, launched the seminar in 1955 to cultivate cinema as an art form for exploration. Historically, the role of Frances Flaherty, who collaborated with Bob on all his films, has been overlooked.
While Flaherty directed --depending on whether you count the film fragments and films he did for hire--only four films, Frances created one of the most important international seminars for documentary, experimental and independent cinema—the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, run by IFS. Its impact and significance on international independent cinema are irrefutable.
The Robert Flaherty Film Seminar is among the longest, continuously running nonprofit organizations in the world supporting independent cinema. Fighting the isolationism of the Cold War as well as Hollywood, Frances was heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. She imported its ideas of non-preconception, surrender to the material, and letting go to her notions of “the Flaherty way” of making a film that differed from commercial screenplays. Her Buddhist-inflected thinking—somewhat fashionable in Northeastern US intellectual and artistic circles in the 1950s—contributed to her vision of the Flaherty seminars as a place for exploration.
The restoration and soundtrack—now available on DVD from Criterion—were very controversial: they almost bankrupted IFS. Many trustees on the board during this period felt the resources should go towards supporting the always financially strapped seminar, not towards a questionable restoration of Nanook. Some questioned the score itself, arguing it adopted the Hollywood strategy of using music for emotional impact.
Nanook of the North is now in the public domain. Live remix artist Simon Tarr has revamped Nanook into a project on global warming entitled Tia Mak, the last credit in Nanook, which translates from the Inuit as “the end.” Tarr excised all the shots with people and remixes the film’s empty landscapes, layering them over each other, with a minimalist techno track.
In many ways, Tarr’s project, like Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, returns the footage to its historical—but not authentic—context. Shown in clubs, the present day iteration of the cine club, the remix responds to the audience and the space in a collaborative act. It takes the remote spectacle of arctic ice and wraps it around our bodies, wherever we are.
Tia Mak suggests that every space holds within it the possibility of a new space that rejects oppositions and separations, a geography of connections, exchange, crossings.
Like watching documentaries from the 1920s in 2010. Like Nanook in the tropics.