Thursday, July 30, 2015

Polar Sovereignty

In July of 2007, a Russian crew headed to the bottom of the ocean in a pair of Mir-I submarines, the same kind seen and used in James Cameron's Titanic.  This time, though, the goal was not so much to find something as to leave something -- a little titanium Russian flag -- on the floor of the Arctic Ocean directly atop the North Geographic Pole.  They succeeded in doing so, and the act was hailed in Russia -- while in Canada, where nerves over Arctic sovereignty are thin and often frayed, Foreign Minister Peter MacKay criticized the action as meaningless, declaring that "this isn't the fifteenth century."  Maybe not, and it's not really likely that this flag-planting will have anything beyond a symbolic effect, but all the same it's no less strange an exercise than the Canadian government's touting of the finding of the Franklin-era search ship HMS Investigator, which they decided was important enough to fly the Environment Minister up to the site at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, just to film a few snippets for the news.  Military exercises in support of Canadian sovereignty have become an annual event, with the latest -- Operation Nunalivut -- just concluded.

There are many ways a claim of sovereignty can be made; prominent among them are discovery (I was here first), cession (you can have it, I don't want it), subjugation (I conquered it by force), and contiguity (it's in the midst of lands I already claim). One might think, given all the flag-plantings, that discovery was the strongest claim, but it practice is can be the weakest; land discovered but not occupied, or without the effective exercise of control, may be deemed "inchoate" -- undeveloped or temporary -- and thus liable to the claims of others who may, in fact, arrive much later.  All these issues, as one may imagine, become trickier in Canada's north, whose vast landmass is larger than India but has a population not much greater than West Warwick RI.

The Russian sub stunt has to do with the sub-category of sovereignty pertaining to coasts.  While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea defines territorial waters as extending only 12 nautical miles from shore, some countries regard all waters situated above the continental shelf supporting the country's landmass as theirs.  The Russians, of course, take the latter view, and since their shelf extends from the northern coastline to a few miles of the geographic pole, planting a flag on the seabed there is only a modest extension of what they already claim.  A good summary of the issues, and why a recent survey of the seafloor of the Arctic Ocean attracted such attention, is available here.

Russia, already busily selling oil leasing rights along its northern coast, is willing to bet there are more such resources under the polar sea -- and if the icecap were to melt in summer -- something once unthinkable but now only a decade or less away in some projections -- the logistical difficulties of extracting and transporting mineral resources would be greatly reduced.  It's a time of tremendous anxiety -- and, for some, opportunity -- and the only (nearly) sure thing is that native northern peoples are unlikely to get their fair share.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Nanook Taxi

The influence 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, July 26, 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 parted ways. Flaherty then 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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Atanarjuat

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, July 19, 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.

Tuesday, July 14, 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.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Inuit Meet the Explorers

For the explorers to meet the Inuit is one thing; for the Inuit to meet the "explorers" is quite another. What can it mean to be "discovered"? And how should one act in the presence of strangers whose clothes seem ragged and poor, but whose wealth -- reckoned up in the form of wood, metal, and manufactured items such as sewing needles and metal knives -- is so vast that it almost destroys the entire Inuit notion of economy? They come to you, starving, dying, frostbitten, gums blackened with scurvy -- and yet even their last few possessions make them rich beyond belief. It's little wonder that, eight or more generations later, these men appear more frequently as demons than as human creatures.

Dorothy Eber has worked collecting Inuit oral history for more than forty years; in 1971, she collaborated with the Inuit artist/writer Pitseolak Ashoona on Pictures Out of my Life, one of the very first published books by an Inuk. In 1996, she published When the Whalers Were Up North, an oral history of the contact and collaboration between Inuit and the crews of whaling vessels in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with all such histories, the vividness of memory, even at a distance of more than a century, is striking.

In all these books, you also see something of the modern life of these Inuit elders and their families. In the late 1950's, most Inuit were forced into permanent settlements, although the older people sometimes returned to camp on the land from time to time. Since there were so many people with identical names, Inuit were first issued numbers printed on dog tags, and later obliged to take last names as part of "Project Surname." The children and grandchildren of these Inuit grew up without much sense of what life out on the land was like, and traditional foods -- seal, walrus, and caribou meat, whale blubber (muktuk) and birds' eggs gave way to more standard southern fare, including canned, frozen, and fried foods. In the 1990's, satellite televisions started to become common, and the Internet arrived in the North; at one point there were more computers per capita in Nunavut than anywhere else in Canada.

And amazingly, throughout all these changes, the Inuit oral tradition continued to thrive, although at times details were lost, or different stories condensed into one. The deaths of the last elders who came of age out on the land meant that the fullest versions of many of these stories were lost, and stories about stories took their place. Ms. Eber's work has preserved what are, alas, very likely the last few versions of stories from these traditions, where the visits of explorers such as Ross, Franklin, and Amundsen are recalled almost as if they had happened yesterday.

These stories challenge us to see our ancestors and ourselves as we were seen by others: strangers, ill-equipped for survival but wealthy with scarce commodities; lost, searching for others who were lost before them, and unable to communicate clearly. Again and again, the Inuit did what they could to help these strangers: they provided food, hunted, and traded with them. And yet it seemed these strange people did not know how to live! The Inuit sometimes made fun of these odd people who yelled at one another and were very concerned about who was the boss (the Isumutaq, 'one who speaks for others'). And, to be fair, they made fun of themselves as well; after chopping a hole in one of the white people's big umiaks in order to get at the things inside, they laughed ruefully when, once the ice thawed, the ship sank to the bottom, taking all the things with it.

These tales carry both hints of the distant past, and the imprint of Inuit culture in the twenty-first century, with all its challenges. What do we hear when we hear these stories today?

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Arctic Passage

A documentary film has an aura of fact. After all, our friend the Narrator wouldn’t mislead us – or would he? Ever since documentary films began in the 1890’s, when they were called “actuality” films, this has been a vexed question. Thomas Edison’s film company, for instance, knew that there was tremendous demand for footage of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The cost, and risk, of sending cameramen and equipment to the battlefield was prohibitive; it was far more cost-effective to stage battles in New Jersey with hired actors and costumes. Thus was begun the noble tradition of re-creating scenes that the camera had missed, one which has enjoyed a resurgence of late. When it came to the Arctic, much the same rule applied; despite the successes of pioneers such as Frank Hurley, whose footage of Shackleton’s expedition electrified audiences, the big studios usually found it far more economical to send a camera crew to the Sierras and use the snow and mountains there as their backdrop. With Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty reversed that trend, but as we'll see in a couple of weeks, he managed to open a whole new can of muktuk.

Of course that was 1922 – and here we are in 2015. Surely we’ve come a long way from the “Nanook” era. And yet, in many ways, these same practices persist today. To explain, I’ll tell you a little about my work on the documentary, “Search for the Northwest Passage,” which aired in the UK, and in the US under the title “Arctic Passage.” I’d worked as a consultant on the film for more than a year before it finally got the “green light” for production. As a co-production between Britain’s ITN TV and WGBH/NOVA, this was to be a big-budget affair, as documentaries go these days. The producers sent an advance crew to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to scout locations and lay plans; back in London, scripts were prepared for the historical recreations. The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship. The scenes with Lady Franklin and Sir John were completed in London, and those playing Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest were flown to the Arctic for location work. What remained was to line up the “talking heads” – the on-camera experts – and interweave their footage with the re-creations. I was lucky to be one of just two of these “heads” who would be filmed on location.

It was a strange business. As soon as we arrived in Gjoa Haven, the first order of business was to film my “arrival” – another plane was filmed landing, and we did several shots of me getting off this plane and "heading" to the hotel. After about the fourth take of this sequence, I turned to the director of photography, Harald Paalgard, and remarked “there sure is a lot of fiction in these documentaries.” He laughed. “It’s all fiction,” he declared. What he meant, of course, was that it’s all about the story. If some expert is to arrive at a remote location to conduct research, he or she must be shown arriving; the viewer will want and need this thread in order to accept the overall truth of the film. The small “fiction” of the staged arrival was in the service of the larger truth of the overall story.

By the time we got to Gjoa Haven, most of the dramatic actors had gone home. The only remaining scenes at that point were with local Inuit, who played their own ancestors. A call had been put out to any adult men and women who possessed caribou-skin outfits and could speak Inuktitut; a wage of $100 a day was offered. Quite a few showed up, and the best were set to work, speaking to the “explorers” from within an igloo the townspeople had built on the town’s “beach” (odd to call anything a beach in twenty-below zero weather!). After a week in Gjoa, it was off to Resolute, and to Beechey Island, that mythical centerpiece of the Franklin saga. There, we did numerous shots of me riding on a snow machine piloted by the crew’s guide and safety officer, polar veteran Paul Landry. I wondered why, given that we’d chartered a helicopter to Beechey, but when I saw the film I had to agree that a 10-mile trek across the ice in a skidoo was far more dramatic than 15 minutes in a chopper.

Unlike the dramatic actors, I didn’t have a script. Instead, I had “talking points” – themes, facts, and observations, many of which I’d submitted myself, which the producers had sorted out in terms of where and how they wanted them placed. It was awkward at times, since I had to improvise my lines from these points, but had to make sure I did not add any asides or wander from the key points. We were shooting on 16mm film, so every moment meant money; it wasn’t until the second or third day that I really grew used to the arrangement; there is something in a scholar’s disposition that resists absolutes. and cautions against conjectures.

Once all the footage was shot, then comes the next phase of truth-telling – editing. It’s not uncommon to have a hundred hours of footage for a single hour of finished film, so a great deal can happen at this stage, for better or for worse. Even though all the shots have been pre-planned to fit the puzzle, there are dozens of slight variations to every piece, and just the right ones must be chosen. At this stage, I was called upon to re-record some of my comments, and add others that could be used as voiceovers for existing footage; this gave the producers the flexibility they needed. Like the rest of the cast, of course, I had no idea exactly what choices were being made, I could only guess what was in the stew from the ingredients I’d added myself, or seen filmed. It wasn’t in fact until nearly six months later when I received a videocassette of the UK version in the mail that I had the least idea how it had all come out.

And yet were still further changes in store – the US producers decided to re-write the script, and re-shoot a series of additional interviews with me – and of course they made quite a few different choices in the editing room. The result, though equally satisfying, made me once more conscious of the intricacies -- and vagaries -- of filmmaking. The film aired in England in 2005, and in the US in 2006, where it has since be shown several more times. When it aired in French in Québec, one of its viewers, Dominique Fortier, was so struck by the story that she was inspired to write a novel, On the Proper Use of Stars, which is now being made into a film by Jean-Marc Vallée, director of The Young Victoria. All of which goes to show you can never tell where a story may go next, once it's passed through your hands.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Weird and Tragic Shores

Charles Francis Hall may well be the most singular explorer in the entire history of the western fascination with the Arctic regions. Unlike the vast majority of such men, he never served in the Navy or merchant marine of any nation, nor did he have any family or local connections with whaling, fishing, sail-making or any other nautical trade. Although he published a sort of newspaper in Cincinnati, it would be a bit of a stretch to call him a “journalist,” and while for a time he had a business making engraved seals for business use, he himself was not a particularly accomplished engraver. Never apparently much of a family man, he more or less abandoned his wife and children when he first set off for the Arctic, and they were almost never the subject of his letters and journals. Indeed, if it were not for the singular leap he made out of the ordinary life of commerce and middle-class life, he might very well have never made much of a mark in any of his endeavors. Hall’s destiny was to do one thing, to do it with faith and fury and a determination which bordered on the monomaniacal – and yet, in so doing, he revealed a deeply humane and conflicted character, at once absolutely unique and yet absolutely a man of his time.

One of the most notable aspects of Hall's career was his close reliance on his Inuit guides, "Joe" Ebierbing and "Hannah" Tookoolito. Throughout his career, they were Hall’s most faithful and trusted companions, accompanying him on numerous sledging expeditions, providing food and shelter, and translating and interpreting at hundreds of interviews with Inuit who had stories to tell about the Franklin expedition. No only were they tireless and constant in their support for Hall’s often very demanding Arctic plans, but, between expeditions, they accompanied him throughout the United States, as well as permitting Hall to arrange for their exhibition in New York and Boston to raise funds for further missions, as well as appearing alongside him on his east coast lecture tour (see here for details of his Providence engagement).

And yet, astonishingly, they remained constant despite the death of two of their children while working for Hall, even though in each case the deaths were at least partly due to Hall’s demands – in the first case, for exhibitions and lectures, and in the second, for a difficult sledge-journey to King William Island (their second child, indeed, was named “King William” by Hall). Hall could be an imperious master, especially when his ‘sacred cause’ of finding Franklin’s men was at stake; Ebierbing, in his only surviving letter, recalled that during the attempt to reach King William, “Mr. Hall tease me all time. Make me go their [sic].” Yet not once, during the entire time of their association, did “Hannah” or “Joe” waver in their service to this man who, without their assistance, would likely have never earned the sobriquet he so dearly coveted – “Charles Hall, Arctic Explorer.”

When Chauncey Loomis arrived at "Thank God Harbor" to exhume Hall and conduct tests for arsenic, he -- like Owen Beattie -- felt that establishing the cause of death would be sufficient service to science and history to justify disturbing his bones. As this photo shows, the body was in considerably poorer shape than those uncovered at Beechey Island, although traces of his beard can be seen. Loomis felt the evidence was less than conclusive, but for my part I am personally convinced that Hall was poisoned with arsenic, most likely by Bessels.

Hall's death had many reverberations. One of the documents I found among the Hall papers at the Smithsonian was a printed copy of a petition circulated in Congress by Hall's widow, Mercy Ann Hall. In tones that evoke those of Lady Franklin, Mrs. Hall allowed that her late husband, "in his devotion to duty, was unsparing of his family and himself," asked only for "tender consideration" and some small "pecuniary assistance" (i.e, money) -- the amount was not specified. She was eventually granted a pension of $40 a month (about $750 in today's currency).

"Joe" and "Hannah" returned to Groton where, as Joe wrote with some pride, their daughter Panik "go to school every day." Alas, there were not many more days remaining; her health had never been good, and she died at the age of nine. Hannah herself followed her adopted daughter to the grave on New Year's eve of 1876; Joe returned to the Arctic, and died some years later under uncertain circumstances. You can visit the graves of Hannah, little "Butterfly," and Panik at the Star Cemetery in Groton CT -- this article has a photo I took of the gravestone.

We'll have many judgments to make about Hall, but love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire his persistence. And, in a field of endeavor crowded with fateful, haunting endings, his may well have been strangest of all. Weird and Tragic shores, indeed.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a brass plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashed on couches, and worked -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, was a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.