Ithaca College  »  FLEFF  »  Blogs  »  Open Spaces  » 


Open Spaces

Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

Next » « Previous

Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 10:30AM   |  5 comments

Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of FLEFF and Shaw Foundation Professor in the Wee Kim Wee School of Communications amd Information at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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.



It seems to me that there is just no way of shedding a kind of patronising attitude towards minority culture, that a power struggle always pervades the interaction of the 'civilised' world and the 'primitive' world (a lack of more illuminating terms is a testimony to that).

While the problems of representation is obvious in Nanook of the North, I guess I can appreciate the kind of honesty that Flaherty shared with the world with regards to his approach. In the process, though unknowingly, he teased out the issues in ethnographic filmmaking that we are grappling with today.

On the other hand, I cannot help but notice a mildly condescending attitude in the writings in IsumaTV, at the same time trying to bring Inuit culture into the social consciousness. I feel that it takes more than embracing the Inuit culture to overcome this patronising attitude.

Like watching "Nanook of the North" in the tropics, I often enjoy watching "Lawrence of Arabia" during the icy grip of a white winter in the Northeastern United States; both allow us to escape our environments, safely, and temporarily. In "Lawrence", the desert landscape still warms even as the politics age.

Incredible... Thank you for this excellent exploration into the complexity surrounding a film, it's history, and "it" as an event.

I am continually perplexed by the ethics questioned, supported, and abused every time a documentary film is made and distributed; this perplexity has led me to question, and questions have led me to thoughts and perhaps answers.

The camera is a tunnel not only encouraging a wanderer or a speeding train to pass through but allowing for the communication between two entities. It seems to me that many documentary films are afraid to be honest about the eye or the set of eyes looking through the camera and allowing it roll. The frame itself forces the filmmaker to be subjective, and rather than hiding this subjectivity it seems that a filmmaker should be honest and open about the voices whispering between the frames... For me, "Nanook" is about a white man filming an Inuit family; the story of this event, "Nanook of the North" is this forced encounter: the white filmmaker, the inuit, and the camera in between.

Indeed, "embracing" is no better than "tolerating" when trying to come to terms with vestiges of imperialism. Like hanging a dreamcatcher on a rearview mirror as a bourgeois symbol of affinity to indigenous nations.

I find that confrontation works better. A major advantage that I have when performing TIA MAK live is that I get to be a sort of undercover agent. I can look at the audience before the show for clues on how they may be predisposed, I can feel them get restless or annoyed during segments, and therefore I can respond accordingly and choose footage and pacing that is in an immediate response to how I read the audience.

Sometimes, I do pull some images of human beings when I perform TIA MAK. One time in particular, I remember an audience not being particularly receptive to a segment. Chatter, giggling, a bit of derision for this ancient film being dug up and thrown at them once again. Oh, we are so much wiser and more enlightened now.

Make no mistake, I consider each frame of Nanook to be sacred and treat them with utmost care. These are souls that I am re-animating and that is not to be taken lightly. I pulled out a shot of Allakalariak looking straight into the camera (at this point, is it even breaking a fourth wall? are we up to a fifth or sixth?), slowed it down, looped it, and composited it in on the fly.

THE Nanook stared down the folks in the audience for a long, uncomfortable time, and it was HE, not I who reclaimed the space. The audience was no longer annoyed with me, they were stilled because they knew they had trifled with my colleague and co-conspirator, Allakalariak, who would not suffer an interruption of a tale that needed to be told.

Even though Nanook is supposed to showcase Inuit life and be the story of Nanook himself, I couldn't shake the feeling that all I was hearing was Flaherty's voice throughout the whole film.

Even though the narrative subtitles were not numerous, they somehow overwhelm the visuals I was watching to become the dominant mode of communication.

Even though Flaherty has spent an enormous amount of time with the inuit, it was as if I was watching Flaherty's interpretation of what Inuit life is instead of Inuit life itself.

Next » « Previous

You can follow posts to this blog using the RSS 2.0 feed .

You can see all of the tags in this blog in the tag cloud.

This blog is powered by the Ithaca College Web Profile Manager.