Yes, I actually like some things.
Case in point, here is a batch of my favorite movies. They are not documentaries. Each tells a fictional story, but each sets that story squarely in a distinctive “tribal” setting. Each is carried out in the native language of its setting, and each uses native actors. The authenticity of each depiction varies (and that is always a tricky question no matter how it’s handled). Suffice to say that in each of these cases, there seems enough to get my attention, and each tells an interesting story in its own right.
We can begin this tour in Africa with a movie called The Rain Warriors (2005). The story follows a group of young Massai warriors as they embark on a quest to slay the incarnation of a deity. Yes, I said “deity,” but it’s worse than that, really. The deity has taken on the form of a lion, and killing this lion-deity is the price it will take to bring rain back to the region, thus saving their people from starvation. In the process, this young group of warriors will also have to prove that they are ready to become men.
Given the role of Age-sets in Massai life, it is interesting enough to see a coming of age n this setting, but some reviewers have suggested the plot is a bit too romantic to be taken too seriously. It is difficult to say how much of this premise is genuinely rooted in Massai thought and how much is the projection of its French Director, Pascal Plisson, but the same could be said said about some serious scholarship on the very same subject.
In the end, what I like most about this movie is the juxtaposition of the classic coming-of-age theme with the role of warriors. It is a simple paradox. The main characters face life and death challenges, the sort of challenges that separate the men from the boys, so to speak. …and yet, the main characters are boys, a fact which they demonstrate often enough during the course of the story, and sometimes with dire consequences.
This feature of the movie isn’t just interesting story-telling. It a truth of actual warfare, that it is often carried out by youth. With so little to separate them from the activities of childhood, these characters must somehow find within themselves the courage and judgement to make adulthood possible. Watching this movie reminded me of the First chapter of Slaughterhouse Five and Vonnegut’s comparison of his own wartime experience to the Children’s Crusade. Add this touching theme to the unique flavor of the cultural setting, and we have a worthwhile sitting.
But don’t try to eat dinner while you watch this movie. …unless, you speak Massai. It sucks to read subtitles in between bites of a taco. I’ve tried.
Sailing a ways out to sea, we come to the movie, Ten Canoes (2006). This movie is set in the wetlands of Arnhem Land in Australia. With its two European Directors, this movie too has its non-native input, but the team makes a serious effort to produce an authentically indigenous story. (And this is an interesting story in itself, as made clear in the extras provided in the movie.)
The most interesting thing about this film (to me anyway) is the double framing of the story. We begin with a humorous narrative by David Gulpilil whom you may recognize from Rabbit Proof Fence, Cocodile Dundee, or The Proposition (to name just a few of his credits). This story sets the stage for another one (depicted in black and white) about a group of men cutting canoes to go hunting birds in the wetlands. One of the men, Dayindi, is envious of his older brother’s wives, or at least one of them (if you get the drift). he also thinks it unfair that he should have no wives while older men in his community should have so many. Responding to his younger kin, his brother, Minygululu, tells Dayindi the story of an ancester similarly stressed by thoughts of his own brother’s wives. This latter story is depicted in full color. So, we have a story within a story within a story.
If that doesn’t make your sense of awesome blossom, then you can go suck a carrot!
Without giving too much away, the framing infuses the movie with a meaning well beyond each of the individual narratives. Gulpilil’s opening comments help to set in perspective the nature of life itself and the ties between people and their land in Aboriginal thought. The middle narrative sets up a moral dilemma which will generate not one but two separate plot-lines. The conclusion of Minygululu’s narrative then turns out to be an answer to Dayindi’s own dilemma. Its significance for the opening narrative is a little less clear, but that just leaves us with something to think about.
And a reason to watch this movie yet again.
To say that this is an Inuit production would be putting it mildly. The plot for the movie is derived from (and largely faithful to) an Inuit story. It’s directer, cast, and crew, are all Inuit. (Okay, maybe not everyone on the crew, but you get the idea.) And just to be clear about this, the intended audience appears to be Inuit as well.
(To say that Inupiat seem to like this film too is putting it mildly.)
True to the nature of native story-telling, the film wastes little time explaining the cultural landscape, or establishing the setting in which its characters live. The movie is made for those who know the setting and will recognize its central characters and themes. It gets right into the plot, relating the central challenge of Atanarjuat and his family, a powerful curse which is to haunt his family throughout the story.
The curse which begins the story is placed on Atanarjuat’s father, leading the family to experience great hardship. In time Atanarjuat and his brother grow strong and prove themselves capable hunters. Atanarjuat himself vies with a rival, Oki, for the the affection of a beautiful young woman, Atuat. The twists are turns in this story are many and varied (I cannot do justice to them), leading eventually to the scene which provides this film with its English title. Attacked in his sleep, Atanarjuat flees naked across the sea ice, chased by three spear-wielding foes.
And here, let us take a moment to acknowledge the lead actor in this production, Natar Ungalaaq, for the bad-ass that he is. The man did in fact run naked across the ice during this production. yes, he had some fake feet made, but they didn’t last long, and otherwise he was naked. How cold was it? When he was naked? Well, here’s a clue, the ocean underneath him was frozen!
There is an interesting twist at the end of this movie, which I will not relate here. Suffice to say that there is at least one respect in which the film deviates from the traditional narrative, It was a conscious choice and one that substantially changes the meaning of the story, hopefully rendering it more salient to modern life.
To learn what I am talking about, you are just going to have to watch the movie.
Okay, this may not be entirely free of sarcasm, but then again it isn’t really Saturday either. What did you expect?
Postcript: I have heard good things about The Orator (2011), a Samoan film which is unfortunately difficult to get in the U.S. and more difficult still here at the top of the world. Luckily, a copy has been floating around here in Barrow and I am hoping to get my hands on it soon.