Saturday, November 21, 2015

The High Arctic Exiles

The story of the High Arctic Exiles is one of the most awful and painful tales of the eastern Arctic Inuit, a parable of sorts about how a government used to treating its native inhabitants as mute collateral, and a native population with a culture of deference to abstract and distant authority, can lead to a destructive dislocation for which no apology, and no compensation, can atone.  To be uprooted from a home one's people have hunted and thrived in for ten thousand years, and relocated to a place utterly devoid of game, of life, of anything more than mere dependance, is not something that can be measured in dollars, in words, or in any known currency of the soul.  Canada has their anguish on its hands, and it always will.

And yet, like so many other roads to hell -- the forcible taking of Inuit south for TB treatment, or the establishment of permanent settlements and schools for native peoples -- it was richly paved with good intentions.  For the federal government of Canada, there was a great anxiety about the regions north of the Barrow straits -- the Queen Elizabeth Islands, and the northern stretch of Ellesmere Island.  You might be nervous too, if your powerful southern neighbor -- the United States -- had sent explorers into your lands, naming vast tracts after George Washington or Abraham Lincoln.  And for the Inuit, who had shifted with skill from a subsistence hunting model to one which emphasized hunting animals for fur for trade, the prospect of co-operating with the Qalunaat had, at least until then, generally led to what seemed like good results.  After all, as Tiivi says in The Necessities of Life, "what if their stories are true?"

So, as often happened, the RCMP came together with the traders, asking the Inuit of Ungava if they would be willing to re-locate farther north.  It was a land of abundance, and the move was not permanent -- they could go back in two years if they didn't like their new home -- such were the lies the Inuit were told.  Well, why not? thought many -- we will see what this will bring, and if we don't like it, we will go back.  Yet no such possibility was in fact allowed for.

As quoted in a story in the Nunatsiaq News, Markoosie Patsauq vividly remembered the day his ship arrived and his exile began in 1955, when he was only 12 years old: “My impression of Resolute was that we had arrived in a dead land,” he said. “There was no sign of any life, not even the seagull.”  And so it was to be; there was little if any game to hunt, and the Inuit who arrived in Resolute and Grise Fjord found themselves to be abject dependents of the adjacent Canadian bases.  They were forced to rely on the leftovers of the Qalunaat, their garbage really -- proud men who had been used to grappling with the daily challenge of hunting and keeping their families alive were reduced to improvising food and shelter out of packing crates, tinned food, and military surplus.

And, in one of the harshest ironies of history, Josephie Flaherty -- the son of filmmaker Robert and the woman credited on camera as "Nyla, the smiling one" -- along with his wife Rynee and their children, were among the Inuit taken from Ungava to nowhere. Rynee still remembers:

She bundled up a few essential belongings, a canvas tent, pots and pans and some blankets, along with her three kids, Martha, 5, Mary, 3, and Peter, aged 6 months. Her family had to move without sled dogs, crucial to survival in the High Arctic, because theirs died before the voyage began. The government offered no help, not even boxes for their things, she says. During the journey, the ship's doctor diagnosed Rynee's daughter Mary with pulmonary tuberculosis. When they reached Churchill, Maniyoba, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, Mary was one of several children taken away for treatment. There wasn't anyone to translate the nurses' English into Inuktitut, so Rynee couldn't understand what they were doing with her daughter.

"I thought they would bring her back right away," she says. "They didn't tell me anything, except that she was leaving."

More than two years passed before she saw her child again. After six months in a sanitarium, Mary was moved to Montreal to wait for the next voyage of the C.D. Howe, which mistakenly dropped her off at Inukjuak. Even though Mary had a number, and an ID tag around her neck, the system somehow forgot her family had moved to Grise Fiord. After the sanitarium, she ended up in far-flung foster families for a few years. She was finally reunited with her family on one of the first flights to land in Grise Fiord. She had forgotten how to speak Inuktitut. The only words Rynee could understand of her daughter's English were "dirty," when she complained about her new home, and "water," when she was thirsty.

‏"She didn't want to be with us," her mother says, the wound still raw. "She didn't want to get off the plane. She wanted to be with qalunaaqs. She used to cry a lot because we were strangers to her."

‏After losing Mary, then Martha – who was sent to residential schools for several years – as well as his self-respect, all to a treacherous system, Josephie lost his mind. By the early 1970s, he was always pacing and whispering to himself. Going silent, and blank, when his wife tried to help.

‏"He got sick of being poor, struggling," Rynee says.

‏He died in 1984, before he could persuade the RCMP and the government to keep their promise and let him take his family back to Inukjuak, their home.

‏"We were guinea pigs," his widow says. "It didn't matter whether we died or not as long as there were Canadian bodies up there to prove the islands belonged to the Canadian government."

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Nanook Taxi

The shadow of Nanook of the North extends in many directions, both within film history and popular culture -- who can forget the Rugrats' "Angelinook of the North"? -- but its most pervasive influence may be that it stood in the place of any other imagery and narratives most of us had of the high Arctic. As has been the case with Native American/First Nations peoples further south, the cinema has always preferred to give us the "native" as a figure on a precipice, the last of a dying tribe, dressed in and surrounded by the remnants of a noble but doomed culture. Whether it was in 1970's "Little Big Man" or 1990's "Dances with Wolves," the Hollywood stereotypes die hard, long after other equally problematic depictions -- such as blackface minstrelsy or diabolical "Asians" such as Boris Karloff's "Fu Manchu" -- have faded from our screens.

And it's much the same story with Inuit. Whether in comedies, such as the lamentable Abbott and Costello vehicle "Lost in Alaska" (1953), the purportedly dramatic "The Savage Innocents"(1960, which give us Anthony Quinn as "Inuk," and inspired Dylan's "Quinn the Eskimo"), the image of the hardy, "happy-go-lucky" and (except for all that wife-swapping and grandmother-abandoning) innocent Eskimo. Even 1933's "Eskimo," based on Peter Freuchen's novels and starring Ray Mala, the first (and so far last) Inupiat marquee idol, repeated many of these old stereotypes (despite that, it's a great film -- too bad Warner's has never seen fit to release it on home video or as a stream).

It's into and against this vexed legacy that Edward Folger stepped in 1977 when he undertook Nanook Taxi. Folger, who'd honed his directorial skills working with such greats as Hitchcock and Alain Resnais, was looking to extend the 1970's themes of ironic encounters and culture clashes by taking a fresh look at the far north. He came to make the film, then stayed on to help establish the new IBC (Inuit Broadcasting Company). For the lead role, he cast Joanasie Salamonie, one of the founders of ITC (Inuit Tapirisat of Canada), who had helped establish the Nunatsiakmiut film society, a precursor of the IBC. A film buff and advocate of Inuit-produced film and media, Salamonie had already appeared in "The White Dawn" (1974), a film based on James Houston's Arctic novel of that name.

The resulting film bears many of the hallmarks of '70's cinema -- slightly grainy, gritty color, a limited first-person point of view, and a gradual building of context from observed details. The idea of a move to the "big city" of Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) seems at first a small step, but it brings with it all the disorientation of a Kansas farmboy moving to Manhattan. The fraying of family and community ties that's dramatized here was an issue for many young Inuit of the early settlement period, and led to enormous problems with alcohol and substance abuse. Salamonie himself fell victim to these forces, but eventually went through rehab and spent the rest of his life helping other Inuit do the same.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Ipellie's Dreams and Nightmares

The image at left is a drawing by Inuit artist and writer Alootook Ipellie (1951-2007), and is entitled "Self-Portrait: Inverse Ten Commandments." In the story accompanying the drawing, Ipellie dreams of himself as Satanasee (Inuktitut for Satan), and in his dreams each of his fingers becomes an "inverse commandment," coming to life with a face a a mouth filled with sharp little teeth that tear at his flesh. It's an apt if somewhat grotesque metaphor for the current spiritual condition of people of Ipellie's generation; they must live in two worlds -- the old shamanistic one with its built-in fear and fatalism, or the new Christian one that circumscribes and limits their spiritual development with rules and ideas that are foreign to traditional Inuit culture. Ipellie, who struggled with both the rejection of his work by supposed "connoisseurs" of Inuit art and the modern northern blight of alcoholism, only made it to the age of 56 before he died of a heart attack.

Isuma productions has dramatized the onset of Christianity, showing both its attractions and its coercive elements, in episode of its Nunavut series, Avaja. The priest offers his Inuit neighbors gifts of tobacco, attaching the promise that when they hear the bell, they must come to the church. He preaches a sermon about "Mosesesee" and the Burning Bush (a tough sell for people who have never seen a bush), and they seem to comply with his wishes, singing along loudly with every hymn. Nevertheless, it's clear that one reason they chose to attend was the anxiety of not being impolite, and (perhaps) the fear of offending the new God and his ministers. For Inuit who were there to witness this development, there has always been a sense of doubleness, of living between and yet within two worlds.

The division of modern Inuit between those who, like Ipellie, can recall the onset of western culture and forced settlements, and the generations after, is further complicated by religious divisions. Zacharaias Kunuk has spoken about the hatred between Protestants and Catholics in Iglooklik; one missionary from each faith converted half the town, and Kunuk compared the hostile border through the middle of the settlement to the Green Line in Beruit, which separated Muslims from Christians; he recalled children throwing stones at one another across this sectarian border. Evangelical denominations have had particular growth in the past few decades, and when Inuit politician Tagak Curley adpoted the campaign slogan "Jesus is Lord over Nunavut," he counted on evangelicals for their support (he lost, narrowly).

Unfortunately, Ipellie's most brilliant and lasting work, the collection, Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, is out of print and getting harder and harder to find. Fortunately, there's an article about him, Kimberly McMahon-Coleman's "Dreaming an Identity Across Two Cultures: The Works of Alootook Ipellie," which discusses his work at length, and includes many of the drawings -- you can read and download it here for free. I've also made one story, "When God Sings the Blues," available here via the blog.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Necessities of Life

The story is a familiar one, certainly to Inuit who were living on the land in the 1950's: a diagnosis of tuberculosis, followed by transport to a southern hospital, treatment that sometimes lasted for years, and then -- if one survived -- an abrupt return home. The medical system of the time was utterly insensible to the cultural and emotional trauma of this treatment, which has come back to haunt many who underwent it.  Alootook Ipellie was one, as a child, and so was Natar Ungalaaq's grandfather, as he describes in this radio interview.  It's been depicted in film before, most memorably in Vincent Ward's brilliant Map of the Human Heart, whose main character, Avik, is sent south in the 1930's, an era in which antibiotics for TB were unknown, and the treatments were accordingly longer, more painful, and less successful.  The approach of director Benoît Pilon here is less melodramatic, as befits his own background as a documentary filmmaker; we see the story unfold through the eyes of Tivii (Ungalaaq) is straightforward order, without adornment; the tone is both bleak and beautiful.  Ungalaaq's expressive face and voice are the stars of this film, for which he won the Canadian Genie award for Best Actor in 2009.  We also see, though only for a short time, something of the life of the Inuit during the time just before the move to forced settlements, when a name was less important than a number (you can see the "Eskimo Tag" Tivii is wearing in the still above).  There's also testimony to the saving power of story, when lost in an environment where nothing seems familiar.

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Atanarjuat is the first feature-length film to be written by, directed, and star Inuit people (1911's The Way of the Eskimo, which was written by and starred Inuit, is a lost film, but had a running time of only about ten minutes). It was literally years in the making, as director Zacharias Kunuk of Igloolik and co-writer Pauloosie Qulitalik sought to develop the idea. Backing was hard to find, as was a cast talented enough and experienced enough to make the film he'd dreamed of. Filming got underway at last in 1999, only to have the man cast in the lead role quit the film (apparently he didn't fancy running naked for miles over the ice, which is the film's most dramatic scene). Happily, Natar Ungalaaq, who replaced him, was both a more capable and a more handsome leading man, and the magnetism between his character and Atuat (a brilliant performance by Sylvia Ivalu) is palpable.

The story is based on an old legend from the Igloolik area (though similar tales are recorded in other Inuit groups), and has all the basic elements of romance and epic. Two brothers, whose father has never had much success in hunting, grow to adulthood and become great hunters. One of them is known as a fast runner; he can catch up with a dogsled going full tilt. This is Atanarjuat, and he loves Atuat, despite the fact that she's been pledged by her father, a powerful shaman, to his own son Oki. Atanarjuat and Oki engage in ritual combat, taunting each other with drum-dance songs and exchanging blows to the head. Atanarjuat triumphs, but Oki, not one to take defeat lightly, plans revenge. Peter-Henry Arnatsuaq, who plays Oki, has the perfect braggart's swagger, as well as a mouthful of villainous teeth; it's hard to take your eyes off him, even when you want to. The drama that unfolds would be compelling in any world, but in the treeless wilderness of snow and ice, where the dead as well as the living may be waiting for you at the end of your journey, it's especially stark and compelling.

P.S.: For those having difficulty keeping track of the characters, families, and relationships depicted in the film, I've scanned a chart; there's also a collection of stills with character and actor names, online.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

A Kayak Full of Ghosts

Men whose intestines have been devoured float up to the moon. A fox trades wives with a worm. A man grows sick from eating too many heads. A woman carves a replica of her dead boyfriend out of blubber, and he comes to life. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts, author Lawrence Millman collects a cross-section of the strange world of stories from the peoples of the north, primarily from Greenland and the eastern Canadian Arctic. We've all read books of folklore and traditional tales before, but I'd hazard a guess that none of them were quite as macabre as this. In an interview with the author a few years ago, I asked him why he thought the Inuit of the north told stories so filled with flesh, with blood, and dismemberment; he replied that "in places where the material culture is very bare, the need to imaginatively transform the world is well nigh overwhelming. Whereas, if you go to someplace verdant, you don't have to perform any transformations, because the wealth is already there. In other words, when you have at your fingertips a voluptuous world, the imagination tends to be more mimetic than it would be when the culture and landscape are austere. Also, the fact that people are often skinning and cutting up animals somehow translates into the rather different types of dismemberment you find described in the stories."

I realize that for some in the class, the content of some of these stories may be very strange, even disturbing. But I would remind everyone that there are quite a few scenes in the Western tradition which are nearly as awful: The evil queen in Snow White is invited to the wedding, but then forced to dance in red-hot iron shoes until she drops dead; the little girl in Hans Christian Andersen's "The Red Shoes" is forced to dance day and night until a friendly woodchopper cuts off her legs -- and even then, she is met at the door by her still-dancing limbs. In order to try to fit their feet into the glass slipper, Cinderella's step-sisters cut off parts of their heels. Of course, we don't usually think of the details of the original stories, as we are much more familiar with the Disney versions, which clean up all the blood and whistle a happy tune -- but nevertheless they are there.

None of the stories in Millman's book are ever likely to be made into Disney cartoons -- there would be too much that would have to be (if you'll pardon the pun) cut out. But they have secrets to tell us all the same, secrets about the inner life of a people who managed to extract a living in one of the harshest climates on earth, and who knew all too well that to sustain life, life must be taken.

So pick a story from this Kayak -- and describe your reaction to it, recalling that sometimes, that which is disturbing also is that which has the most vital truth to tell.

Thursday, October 15, 2015


A decade after the success of Nanook, Hollywood was finally ready, it seemed, to take up the "actual" Arctic, and shoot a feature dramatic film on location. The director, W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke, had got his start as assistant director to D.W. Griffith, and shown himself adept at the kinds of remote-location-shot films that brought strange and "savage" people and places onto the cinema screen. The basis for Eskimo was a novel -- actually two different novels -- by Peter Freuchen, an Arctic veteran whose writerly gifts had made him one of the best-known explorers of his day. And, unlike many similar sorts of films, in which white explorers or missionaries were the hapless victims of dangerous tribes, in Eskimo, it was the white man -- with his passion, greed, and recklessness -- who was to be shown a villain. And, in an unusual move, Freuchen not only agreed to accompany the production (eventually shot in Alaska, although the original story was set in Greenland) but to be cast as the villainous lead himself, a one-legged whaling captain (it may have helped that Freuchen himself already had a wooden leg).

The move to Alaska was mainly made to reduce costs, but in every other way the picture strove for authenticity, even hiring local Inupiat to play a number of key roles. Their most fortuitous hire, though, was Ray Wise, a handsome half-Inupiat actor and cameraman, who had possessed both big-screen good looks and native authenticity. Wise helped in every aspect of the production, even assisting with the Inupiat dialogue and translations, for -- in a move that far predates similar ones such as Dances with Wolves -- all the Inupiat actors were to be scripted in Inupiat. The one false note was that, in a bow to the concerns of MGM's home office, Van Dyke cast Asian-American actresses in most of the lead female roles -- a practice that can be traced back to the silent era. Thus did Lotus Long (a Japanese-Hawaiian actress) and Lulu Wong (sister of the established Chinese-American actress Anna Mae Wong) become Eskimos, alongside at least one actual Inupiat actress, whose name remains unknown.

The publicity campaign for the film -- one of its taglines was "Eskimo Wife Swappers" -- made the most of the liberties accorded pre-Hayes-commission Hollywood films, but the underlying story retained far more nuanced and sensitive awareness of cultural difference. It's the cruel whaling captain whose violent sexual appetite and indifference to the people he works among leads to disaster, and yet it's Mala (Wise) who must pay the price. The film's climactic scenes, in which Mala must risk his life to escape the by-the-book injustices of a clueless RCMP Inspector, are among the most dramatic and compelling ever filmed.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been hailed as the first and greatest documentary film, and although I would not necessarily agree with either claim (it's certainly not the first, in any case). But yes, Nanook rewrote the book for documentary film, and it did so by taking a number of pages out of the history of dramatic film.

Robert Flaherty had actually compiled two different sets of footage in the Arctic in the years before Nanook, and had at first intended to use this material to make his film. And yet, although this material clearly showed the "actual" Arctic, it did so piecemeal, and without any strong central narrative. When the working print caught fire and was destroyed (early nitrite film stock was highly flammable), Flaherty decided on a whole new plan. Instead of simply pointing his camera at things that were actually happening, he decided to "cast" specific Inuit as members of an imaginary family, and then deliberately create a narrative which not only included the "incidents" he'd earlier filmed, but extended the story through a complete dramatic arc, much as would a feature film. The idea was revolutionary, but still he needed backers to provide the resources.

He found a willing sponsor in Revillon Frères, a fur concern which operated a series of trading posts; the "friendly trader" in the early scenes is from one of these. The company simply asked that they be portrayed in a positive light, a seemingly small request, but one which nevertheless does affect the film's objectivity. Flaherty also wished to depict Inuit life from the era before the adoption of modern weapons such as rifles; thus, although one of the main reasons the Inuit traded with the white man was to obtain guns and ammunition, this was not shown, and "Nanook" hunts only with a spear. He
even persuaded them to conduct a walrus hunt with traditional weapons, something the local Inuit had not done for more than a generation, and which they were reluctant at first to re-enact. As Inuit writer Alootook Ipellie pointed out, it would be as though someone came to modern Toronto to ask the locals to show how everyone lived in the 1800's!

And of course Nanook himself, his wife Nyla "the smiling one," and the rest of the family depicted by Flaherty were in fact actors, Inuit playing an Inuit family. Nanook was portrayed by Allakariallak, whom Flaherty chose for his patience and rugged appearance; Nyla was played by a young Inuk woman, Maggie Nujarlutuk, who was, actually Flaherty's common-law wife at the time the film was made, and one of the babies shown may have been their child, Joseph (or Josephie; the Inuit added an -ie or -ee to many western names). Like many other explorers and travelers before him, including Peary and Henson, Flaherty left his child behind when he headed back south to take up a career as a filmmaker. Josephie Flaherty was, as fate would have it, one of the Ungava Inuit who was to be forcibly relocated to Resolute and Grise Fiord in the 1950's in a misguided attempt to strengthen Canadian sovereignty in the North. This group, known as the "High Arctic Exiles," finally received a financial settlement offer from the federal Canadian government a few years ago, but no apology was made then, or has been made since.

And to be fair, Flaherty could not necessarily have anticipated the worldwide response to his film. Although Revillon Frères thought of it more or less as a promotional venture and did not even expect to recover their costs, Nanook was picked up for distribution by Pathé, given a New York premiere and went on to be one of the most successful films of 1922. Flaherty was given a contract by Paramount, and headed off for Samoa to make a film about the native people there; this second film took three years to make, and was not as successful as Nanook, although it was in reference to this film that the word "documentary" was coined (such films had previously been known as "actualities"). Flaherty was next paired with W.S. Van Dyke to make another south seas film, but they had a falling out (Van Dyke was later to make 1933's "Eskimo," the first big-budget, big-screen northern epic of the sound era). After parting ways with Van Dyke, Flaherty was sent to work with German visionary F.W. Murnau to work on a film called "Tabu," but they too soon had a falling out. Flaherty next moved to Britain, and worked on some shorter films as well as "Man of Aran," which was set in the remote Aran islands. He then went to work for producer Alexander Korda on a film set in India, to be titled "Elephant Boy," and yet again was fired from the project. Back in the U.S., he worked on several more documentaries, but problems with financing and distribution meant that few of them were ever seen in his lifetime.

One of the stories that Flaherty liked to tell was how Allakariallak, less than two years after Nanook was filmed, had starved to death in the frozen wilderness that was his home. The press loved this story, and it's still frequently repeated today. But it's not true; according to testimony from his son and other family members, Allakariallak died from "white man's disease" -- probably tuberculosis -- at home with his family. He may well have been exposed to it during the time he worked with Flaherty on Nanook.

NB: If you're planning to watch part of all of Nanook online, the best link is this one. You may also be interested to see "Flaherty and Film," a brief feature which includes a lengthy interview with Flaherty's widow.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Savages" On Display

The display of humans to other humans has taken many forms over the ages, but surely there have been few as problematic, and often degrading, as the practice of displaying human beings in zoos. The postcard at left is from Carl Hagenbeck's Hamburg "Tierpark" (Animal Park), and shows a group of Labrador Inuit who appeared there in the fall of 1911. The group included Nancy Columbia, whom Arctic historian Kenn Harper has aptly described as the most famous Inuk of her day; she was born in an Eskimo display at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and over the course of her career appeared at well over a dozen world's fairs and expositions from Seattle to St. Louis to Madrid and Paris. She also was featured in a number of early silent films, and wrote he scenario for one of them, "The Way of the Eskimo," which was the first Inuit-written, Inuit-cast film ever made; unfortunately it is not known to survive. In the photo above, taken in connection with their appearance at a "Nordland" festival organized by Zoo proprietor Karl Hagenbeck, Nancy is second from the left, with her trademark Princess-Leia style hairdo; her mother, Esther Eneutseak, is third from the right, with a baby in her arms.

Nancy and her mother were the core of this well-known group of "Eskimos," and while they were the best-known and longest-lived such group, they were far from the only ones. Carl Hagenbeck had displayed several other groups of Inuit at his Zoo, starting with Abraham Ulrikab and his family in 1880. Like many such Inuit, Abraham became ill due with a European disease -- smallpox -- and he, his wife, his teenage daughter, nephew, and infant daughter all succumbed with a few weeks of one another. Remarkably, he left a diary, which was recently translated and published. They were not the first, nor would they be the last, to be quite literally displayed to death.

A full listing of Inuit, along with Inupiat, Yupik, Greenland, and Siberian Eskimos who were put on display in Europe and the U.S., would be a long one, and their life stories would fill many books. Unfortunately, little is known about most of them. Nancy Columbia, surely the most famous of them all, retired from shows around 1920, and lived quietly with her mother in Santa Monica, California. She married a motion-picture projectionist, and they had a daughter named Sue who still lives in the area. Nancy Columbia died in 1959, forgotten by the world, but not by those of us who study Arctic history; you can read the essay Kenn Harper and I wrote on her career here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

John Walker's "Passage"

John Walker’s documentary Passage is among the most unusual documentaries I’ve seen on any subject. Unlike the vast majority of documentary films that followed in the wake of Nanook of the North, PASSAGE doesn’t fully fictionalize its facts, nor does it entirely factualize its fictions. The opening sequence (which you can see online here), is the tip-off: Rick Roberts, who plays the Scottish surveyor Dr. John Rae, is seen walking in present-day garb through present-day London, passing such iconic sights as St. Paul’s, the Millenium Bridge and Trafalgar Square. As he enters the Admiralty building in Whitehall and ascends the stairs, there is a certain dramatic tension – what next? The answer comes as he knocks and enters; as he steps into the room, we see the Lords of the Admiralty in full period uniform, then realize that Dr. Rae, too, has traded in his nylon backpack and windbreaker for a frock coat and an oversize bow tie. We know where we are, but when are we?

Walker delights in these sorts of anachronistic transitions in which, again and again, we are invited to pay attention to the proverbial ‘man behind the curtain.’ We see “Dr. Rae” speaking with such luminaries as James Clark Ross and John Richardson; the next moment we see them out of costume, seated around a table in a modern room discussing story ideas for the film. One moment, we are presented with a brilliant turn by Geraldine Alexander as Lady Franklin; the next we see her out of costume, looking like Annie Lennox on a bad hair day. In and out of these transitions, we meet with a few figures who remain in the present and – at first – outside the main action of the film: the director himself, author Ken McGoogan on whose book the film was based, and perennial Nunavut political figure Tagak Curley.

The re-staged scenes from the past – Captain Coppin revealing his daughters’ visions to Lady Franklin, Charles Dickens proposing his article in Household Words to Lady Franklin and a skeptical Dr. Richardson, Dr. Rae trudging across the tundra – work wonderfully, but are punctuated with lengthy sequences set in the present, beginning with a visit by Rick Roberts to the Orkney home of Dr. Rae, practicing his Scots brogue and how to cock and raise a rifle with local experts. Gradually, we come to see the historical pieces as the interludes, and the present action as the play itself, a tangent which comes to a head when Tagak Curley arrives in London. Curley, a charismatic politician who’s better known around Nunavut for his evangelical campaign slogans (“Jesus is Lord over Nunavut!”), happily plays the native informant to Walker, who guides him to the foot of the Franklin statue at Waterloo place. “They forged the last link with their lives,” he reads – and Curley hurries to disagree. “That’s a lie. Dead men can’t discover anything.”

And thereon hangs a tale, though it is one the film never quite tells explicitly. The belief among Franklin’s admirers has been that men dispatched from his ship in 1847 almost certainly reached Simpson’s Cairn, erected near the strait of the same name by an eastward survey of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Doing so would have united eastern with western maps, in effect “discovering” the, or at least a, passage. There is no absolute evidence of this, but both the records left by land parties and Inuit testimony agree that some men of Franklin’s party, whether as explorers or bedraggled survivors, certainly reached the extreme southwestern edge of King William Island, and some crossed over to the mainland.

Dr. Rae’s claim, championed by McGoogan and loudly echoed recently by Billy Connolly, comes later – in 1854 – and has to do with the Rae Strait on the southeastern corner of King William. Since the western side was rendered impassable nearly every year by heavy pack ice, the shallower but clearer eastern side is seen as a truer “passage”; indeed it was the route taken by Roald Amundsen when he became the first to sail the passage from end to end. Rae, as the surveyor of this alternative “last link,” is heralded as the true discoverer of “the” passage. Rae’s superior skill in surveying, and in living off the land, is undeniable; that he was snubbed by the Admiralty and attacked by Dickens indisputable. Yet the snub came, not because of any geographical claim, but rather on account of the Inuit testimony, brought home by Rae, that the final few Franklin survivors had turned to the “last resource” – cannibalism – in their efforts to stay alive and escape their frozen prison.

Tagak Curley, though hailed by some as the “Father of Nunavut,” is certainly no expert on the Inuit testimony about the Franklin expedition, or he wouldn’t so readily dismiss Franklin’s claim. One need not admire the Royal Navy, or Franklin himself, to credit the evidence that his men did indeed reach a point at our near the furthest eastward survey. He’s on firmer ground with his criticism of those who attacked Rae for bringing home the evidence of cannibalism, particularly Dickens who believed the Inuit attacked the Franklin survivors, and spoke of their having a “domesticity of blood and blubber.” And here again, Walker does not disappoint; he brings two unlikely people into the discussion, which by now has moved into the Admiralty board room: Ernie Coleman, RN (ret.), and Dickens’s own great-grandson. Coleman happily launches into his defense of the idea of bloodthirsty Inuit, which gets the whole room, especially Curley, shouting. Then comes the heir of Dickens, a man who’s made some study of his ancestor’s claims, and is more than willing to admit that Charles Dickens acted out of prejudice and ignorance. When he apologizes to Curley and Curley accepts, the moment is both deeply moving and somewhat absurd – and yet it is a moment that could have happened in no other film.

The movie earned strong reviews in Canada, and is now available there and in the U.S. on DVD. It’s not a perfect film, but it is provocative, and no one who has any knowledge or feelings about either Franklin or Rae should miss seeing it.