Wednesday, February 15, 2017

NATIVe at the Berlinale

Angry Inuk
Thanks to a grant from the lovely Film London, I've been at the Berlinale.  This huge, and very impressive film festival includes a strand called NATIVe, which showcases indigenous film every year.  With ORIGINS only a few months away (block out June 13-25 in your diary now!), the opportunity to see so many indigenous films in a few days, and to meet the people who made them, was too good to miss.

This year, the NATIVe programme focussed on the Arctic - which was another bonus for me.  In previous festivals, we've included lots of Australian, American and New Zealand films, plus a new strand of Latin American work in 2015 - but rather fewer from the cold North.  We did screen the Inuit films Uvanga in 2015 and Before Tomorrow in 2011, as well as the S├ími film Biekka Fabmu in 2013: but I've always wanted to apply a more sustained focus to the region, particularly in the light of climate change.  Canada's 150th birthday this year looks like providing us with the ideal opportunity to do this - even if the films themselves are subversive of that celebration.
The "star" of the Berlinale's Arctic programme was undoubtedly Zacharias Kunuk's Maligutit (Searchers), which was packed to bursting on Saturday night in the biggest cinema I have ever seen.  The screen was so enormous that you had to sit many rows back just to take the whole thing in.  Provided the seat was suitable, this was a terrific way to watch the film, as the vastness of the Arctic location was central to the piece.  Kunuk is famous as the director of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner - an Inuit epic which has been voted the best Canadian film of all time.  Maligutit is similarly set amongst the Inuit, in their own landscape, with no sign of other cultures, apart from (this being the 19th century) the presence of kettles and a gun.  It's not a post-colonial film as such: the conflicts between Inuit groups that it portrays are not affected by the outside world.  But, in a way, that is in itself a post-colonial statement.  Kunuk is a filmmaker who reclaims the narrative and the viewpoint for his own people.
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril
In Angry Inuk, documentary filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril also reclaims the narrative - and, in this case, the moral high ground.  Her film is an extraordinary, painstaking and powerful engagement from the Inuit perspective with the question of the seal hunt.  Alethea takes on Greenpeace, PETA, the Humane Society and the European Parliament.  Her argument is that seal-hunting is the means whereby her people acquire affordable food and (through the sale of sealskin products) make a living.  The seal is not an endangered species, and the numbers involved are small.  This is an entirely sustainable activity with a respectful approach to the animal, every part of which is used after the hunt.  The EU trade embargo may have had an exception for Inuit "subsistence" hunting, but that actually makes things less sustainable, as they cannot sell the fur.  The cultural effects are huge: not being able to live according to culture is one reason for the grotesquely high rate of suicide amongst young Inuit.  What is needed now is a direct engagement for the film and its maker with the anti-hunt lobbyists, so that a proper debate can be had.  And that is what we will try to achieve in our Festival.
Johogoi Aiyy
Both of these were films I already knew about and had been anxious to see.  Johogoi Aiyy (God Johogoi), on the other hand, was a complete discovery.  This astonishing film, from the Russian Republic of Yakutia, known to its indigenous inhabitants as Sakha, is set at the summer festival of Ysyakh.  A young horse herder called Johogoi goes there in the belief that he will meet the beautiful woman who appears in his dreams.  It sounds fanciful, of course - but what is incredible, and deeply indigenous, in this film is the way the spiritual narrative is totally embedded in the lived experience of the 21st century.  This even applies to the film's methodology: it was shot over two days at the real festival, with only two "actors" - everybody else in the film just happened to be at the festival, and interacted with the main character as if he were "real".  The result is one of the most moving cinematic experiences I have ever had.  If you're looking for one wild card at our festival in June: this will be it.