dir. Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël, Canasa 2009.
dir. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, Cana 2016.
Both the films and the venues themselves are thematically curated for this festival, and tonight’s presentation combined both into a unique experience. #BerlinaleGoesKiez brings selections from the program out to smaller independent neighborhood (“Kiez”, auf Deutsch) theatres, while #NATIVe shines a light on “Indigenous Cinema”.
Even though I live right in this neighborhood, I had no idea that the Eiszeit Kino was here, and what a place! Three screens of contemporary world cinema, with an adjoining bar and restaurant. Before the films, our host related the theatre’s history, which began decades ago in a Schöneberg squat. The building lacked heating, hence the name “Eiszeit”, or “Ice Age”. Patrons would be given blankets during those frosty Berlin winters to keep warm during the show. The current incarnation of this institution is less than a year old, and I’m truly spoiled to have another place within walking distance alongside the other wonderful arthouse venues in diesem Kiez.
Onto the #NATIVe aspect of the evening, which began with a short film, TUNGIJUQ, showcasing Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq set against the icy waters of her homeland, on the hunt and savoring the spoils thereof. Starkly photographed yet yielding a glossy finish in its graceful and gory compositions, the abstraction made for a nice mood-setter for the weightier yet related feature to follow.
“Losing your temper can be the sign of a guilty conscience.”
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril made Angry Inuk over the course of 8 years, though the conflict at its heart goes back much further. Before the screening, she thanked the audience in advance for being willing to come and see the film at all. As we learn over the course of her documentary, she and her people’s fight to overturn the sealskin ban in the EU has left them demonized and even more marginalized. Viewers like us have been conditioned for quite some time by anti-seal-hunting campaigns, but know pretty much nothing about the Inuit communities that rely on hunt for food as well as a basic living. It is high time we learned more about the other side of things.
Fortunately for us, Arnaquq-Baril works overtime to get at the nuance of the situation. Both within her film and in conversation with the audience after the screening, she demonstrates a very high level of empathy for her opponents, the animal activists who seem to willfully ignore the effects that their misleading campaigns have on the Inuits. The imagery of a baby seal being clubbed over the head might be difficult to set aside, but Arnaquq-Baril lays out her case with efficiency and humanity, without leaning hard on tropes like the noble ways of tribal life.
Rather, she lays out the practicalities of their microeconomic contributions and needs, and how no-waste hunting and consumption of non-endangered species like seals and polar bears is not just the only economic option available, but it’s by far the most sustainable. In the face of the cost and environmental impact of shipping groceries to the Inuk (the prices for kitchen staples in a supermarket are shown in a montage as upwards of 30 Canadian dollars). And the outside world’s notion of economic development in the region is to earmark the surrounding waters for sonic drilling, damaging the ecosystem of marine life, and disenfranchising the natives yet again in the name of capital, of oil.
But as we have all learned recently, the facts aren’t enough to make a case any more. And even though Arnaquq-Baril and her people have only a tiny fraction of the resources available to animal activist organizations, they find ways to amplify their voices through social media. Yet, those outlets aren’t exactly conducive to the kind of nuance that ultimately brings viewers like me over to their perspective. A “sealfie” of a baby lying next to a dead seal doesn’t tell the story like an almost incidental shot in this documentary where Arnaquq-Baril’s own baby fusses about in his high chair until he’s given a mouthful of raw seal, a major part of the typical Inuk diet.
It’s a precarious time to be speaking out against environmental and animal activism in any way. And I share Arnaquq-Baril’s frustration with this– her goals and those of these organizations are the same underneath. And yet this power of iconography, that is, the ease at which the image of seal perceived to be abused draws attention and donations, puts them at odds. Even when we are doing good works, we have to realize that there is no shortcut to doing so. The vast majority of us who recognize climate change as a phenomenal threat to human existence must message that with honesty and nuance. There are real human lives at stake in the details that we get wrong, and I was fortunate to get to know some of them, and a little more about my own neighborhood, through the engine of coexistence that is #Berlinale tonight.