As Norman Cohn will tell you now, he believes that the Jews and the Eskimos are the longest tribal survivors in history. But it’s a shared trait that the New York Jewish pioneer video artist had not considered until he found a spiritual home, and community work, among the Inuit people of Igloolik in the Canadian Arctic.
“How could people last for 4,000 years in the most inhospitable climate on earth if they weren’t geniuses?” he demanded rhetorically at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Journals of Knud Rasmussen,” the drama he co-directed with Zacharias Kunuk, was the opening attraction.
“The Inuit figured out how to turn bones into tools, how to turn skin into warm clothing, how to feed their families for generations. And when things go wrong in that environment, you’d better laugh, because what [else] are you going to do?” (Cohn professes not to see a similarity between Inuit and Jewish humor, but a Jewish sage advises, “When you’re hungry, sing; when you’re hurt, laugh.”)
Before finding a kindred spirit in Kunuk, Cohn had spent most of his professional life “putting a face on the invisible” by videotaping children in Head Start centers and the elderly in old-age homes. Born in New York City, he is the grandson of Orthodox Jews and the son of the longest-serving New York City educator in history. Married at 19 with a son and a daughter, and later the father of a third child with his second wife, Cohn was drifting around the art world with a lot of recognition and little income when a friend asked him to come to Prince Edward Island and help him build a house.
Meanwhile, Cohn realized that Canada was the only country that had some support for the kind of community-based video he was trying to create. But even this wasn’t enough to move forward.
“I was feeling like I was at a dead end,” he said. “I had just spent 10 years realizing that nobody’s work was going to look like mine.” (Cohn’s work showed the people’s lives without the use of any voice-overs.) Then, one day, Cohn accidentally saw two videotapes — one created by Kunuk, the other by Paul Apak Angilirq — and was struck by them immediately. Kunuk and Angilirq were two Inuit video explorers trained by the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, a government program for native people.
“Those two videos showed that they were also using video as a tool for seeing things rather than talking about them,” Cohn explained. “Later I discovered that was a very Inuit quality. The Inuit don’t tell you about things, they expect that you’re watching and these are tools designed to let you watch the way a child would learn — not by having the parents tell him how to build a sled or clean seal skin, but by simply being with parents when they worked so that one day, he’d have learned by watching. That quality of watchfulness is what had attracted me to video.” Determined to meet the men, Cohn “schemed” his way north to give a camera workshop that Kunuk was attending. The rest, as they say, is history.
Kunuk, like Cohn, is self-taught. In 1981 he sold three of his sculptures in order to buy a Betamax video camera and then began experimenting. In 1990, Kunuk became president and co-founder, with Angilirq, of Isuma, Canada’s first Inuit independent production company. Angilirq began work on their first feature by recording eight elders telling their own version of an ancient oral legend. “Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner)” went on to win the 2001 Cannes International Film Festival’s Camera d’Or for best first feature.
Although that production was actually directed by a team of four, Kunuk was credited as director out of a specific strategy.
“If I had been more prominent,” Cohn said, “people would have made an unfortunate racist assumption that I was the white Jewish video artist and an Inuit was my helper. Neither was it true that the Inuit made the film and I was his helper.”
With “Journals,” Cohn is named co-director for the first time. “Zach and I always wanted to make a film about what happened to his people. How’d you get from this amazing culture being king of the world to a bunch of incompetent drunks?” Cohn asked.
Through the experience of the last shaman and his family, the production explores Inuit history, based mainly on the 1922 journals of Knud Rasmussen, an explorer from Greenland whose father was a Danish missionary and whose half-Inuit mother taught him Inuktitut, her native language. In speaking their tongue, Rasmussen gained the confidence of the last shaman and left an Inuit legacy that without him would have been obliterated.
“Zach grew up in an Anglican family and was forbidden to talk about these things,” Cohn explained. “Their priests would forbid the Inuit to tell their own stories, to sing their songs. Zach told me: ‘I would ask my mother about shamanism. She pretended not to hear me.’ Once they converted to Christianity, people stopped talking about who they were and especially about what they believed. They were taught to be ashamed of who they were before they converted. They were taught their hundreds of taboos were embarrassing. Primitive, savage, stupid, useless.”
“In our film, we don’t say whether the coming of Christianity was a good thing or a bad thing,” Cohn remarked. “It articulates as clearly as possible the price of embracing vengeance. It is a film about loss, and what is lost is for the viewer to say.”
Judy Stone was the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for 30 years. She is the author of, among other books, “Not Quite a Memoir: Of Films, Books and the World” (Silman-James Press, 2006).