Locals film on Arctic opens BMFF
Wood on snow; textured brown and gold horizontal grains of wood glide on brilliant white grains of sparkling snow crystals.
In the opening seconds of Vanishing Point, a new documentary by Canmore filmmaking team Julia Szucs and Steve Smith, the wooden sled runner transports the viewer into a world of expansive snow-coated plains, dark hills jutting from a flat white land and eerily mauve-tinted fractured sea ice.
This world, it is instantly apparent, is very different from that which is familiar to most North Americans.
Narrated by Navarana, a grandmother born in a sod igloo who lives by hunting and harvesting off the land, the story reveals how the circumpolar region of Greenland and Canada’s own Baffin Island is rapidly becoming a world that is also very different from the one that is familiar to its Polar Eskimo and Inuit inhabitants.
Visually stunning, thought-provoking and genuinely heart-tugging, the film follows Navarana and her extended family as they hunt for narwhal from hand-made kayaks and sweep nets into the sky to pluck dozens of auks from teeming flocks, which are then stuffed into seal-skin sacks and buried under rocks to be eaten months later.
While visiting this land as a cinema-goer provides an instantly exotic experience, visiting the region proved tangibly challenging for the filmmakers. On their last of four shoots – two in eastern Baffin Island, where Navarana visits distant relatives to experience their more modern lifestyle of hunting narwhal from motorboats and shopping at a sugar-crammed grocery store, and two in Navarana’s home of Avanersuaq at Greenland’s utterly remote northwest tip – just reaching their destination took a full month.
Travelling from Canmore to Copenhagen and then hopping from one community to the next via commercial aircraft, the last leg to Navarana’s home, accessible only by helicopter, is woefully weather-dependent.
“We got stuck and stuck and stuck,” Szucs said.
Getting there, however, was just part of the adventure.
While filming in a sled pulled by a dog team, the sled ahead of Smith and Szucs sped along carrying a family with four children. Suddenly, the family’s four-year-old daughter tumbled onto the ice right in the path of the second sled.
“She just rolled off and our runner was headed straight toward her,” Szucs said. “We both dove off our sled and it ran right over her. Fortunately, she was fine. But Steve wrecked the camera; he was definitely the worse for wear.”
But as Navarana and the others glide across sea ice on dog-powered sleds, gaping sections of open water created as a result of the planet’s warming climate present life-threatening challenges.
“When we speak to the issue of climate change, this film is not just about melting ice, but about people,” said Smith, who, with Szucs, spent the past four years creating the film. “These are people who need a sidewalk, need a road and that road is the ice. Without it they can’t go hunting. Accidents are happening; people have lost family members just trying to provide food for their family.”
A big impetus behind the film, which Smith and Szucs produced in partnership with Canada’s National Film Board (NFB), grew from how the broad-scale melting of sea ice has prompted several governments, including Canada’s, to initiate divvying up the Arctic, actions which highlight the precariousness of the local inhabitants’ livelihood and survival.
“Some of the greatest biological productivity is found in the waters between Greenland and Canada,” Smith said. “And that’s where the shipping lane is going to go.”
“As marine mammal hunters, the family goes hunting as a unit,” Szucs added. “The members of all the generations earn many life lessons on those trips. It’s not just their lifestyle or culture, it’s their identity.”
Indeed, the excitement is visceral when a narwhal hunter relates being harassed by a sea lion during the hunt. But it’s also impossible not to feel sadness at the scene of Canadian Inuit dropping packages of processed food into shopping carts, a situation likely best summed up by Navarana as she happily chews on fresh muktaaq on a hunting trip.
“Food in a supermarket lived a very different life,” Navarana says.
Throughout the film, moments of utter foreignness are woven together with themes of unmistakable familiarity, such as the universally relatable scene in which Navarana traces a sheet of paper printed with her family tree.
And all the while, the film carries an element of magic, as the true story of a Shaman’s long-ago journey from Baffin to Greenland slowly unfolds.
“Without the Shaman story, these people would not exist,” Smith said. “It’s a rich piece of Canadian history people know nothing about.”
Cut for the big screen to be viewed in cinematic splendour with surround-sound, Vanishing Point plays on Oct. 27, opening afternoon of the 2012 Banff Mountain Film Festival. Also playing as the perfect warm-up is The Gift, Canmore filmmaker Andrew Querner’s short, evocative ode to Rockies’ culture.
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