“I envy that you have such a strong traditional culture because back home we only play rock and roll”, said Greenlandic Inuit actor Mike Thomsen to his Canadian First Nations hosts with a touch of remorse. And that’s what this documentary explores throughout the journey from Greenland to Canada – identity, culture, exploration and redemption.
The world première of The Ravens Storm, which aired in mid-May, was no small affair by Greenlandic standards. Dressed in their finest stilettos and fur couture, the country’s cultural and political élite celebrated the launch together in Katuaq, Nuuk’s cultural centre. In the spirit of the documentary, the North American Indian music band Northern Cree flew from Canada to be guests of honour for the occasion.
The documentary is the first of its kind to put indigenous people together in this setting; it follows four young Greenlandic artists on a cultural journey to Ontario, Canada to meet the First Nations people and then onwards to meet their Inuit counterparts. The Greenlanders perform Tulugaq (a raven), an ensemble piece composed of traditional Greenlandic dance, masks, music and performance across different theatres in Canada. The raven is of significance in many cultural stories by the Inuit peoples, and the performances explore this.
It’s a no-frills kind of gig.
The crew drive around Canada in a combi van and stay with their hosts in whatever is available. Their first stop is on the Wikmewikong first nation reserve where they sleep in tents. The film’s director, Pipaluk Jørgensen accentuates the raw setting using existing lighting, hand-held cameras, and no makeup during the interviews with artists.
While Tulugaq is mystical and dreamlike, it also deals with heart wrenching taboo subjects like incest and suicide that are plaguing the Greenlandic community. Theatre mirrors reality as the documentary focuses on one actress, Najattaajaraq Joelsen, who talks through her own real-life personal traumas. At the beginning of the movie she is afraid to share, saying “This is too personal”. By the end, performing the play becomes almost therapeutic and allows her the courage to unmask these serious issues on camera.
Not a peep of noise could be heard when the film reached the scenes where Joelsen confronts her past. As I watched the film with the cultural élite of Greenland in Katuaq, I couldn’t help but notice how many tears were pouring down the faces of the people around me at that particular scene. It was uncomfortable and slightly bewildering, as if I had suddenly entered a private sanctum for grieving. It’s obvious that in this tight-knit society of 58,000 people, the tendrils of suicide and incest have gripped almost everyone. It’s something which director Jørgensen remarked of after the film’s conclusion, that people should “talk more”.
It’s not all tears of sorrow, however. The artists bond with their indigenous Canadian neighbours. They sing, they laugh, and talk together. When they reach their Inuit friends, they share mattak (whale blubber and skin) and do Inuit throat singing together. This unique style is a guttural form of voice art, traditionally performed by two women in a competition. It takes serious skill, and could challenge the street credibility of beat-boxing. One Greenlander told me afterwards that “it forges a deep connection with the other person by creating a trance-like religious experience”. In a way, the characters of the film realise the distinctiveness of their own identities through exploring each others cultures. They also realise they are alike in many ways.
After watching The Ravens Storm, the viewer might conclude that old culture is mixing with the new to create a blending of reinterpreted ideas, culture and music. In some ways it’s a bit difficult to see why Mike Thomsen said that the Greenlandic people lack strong traditional culture and only played rock n roll. In the film it’s apparent that many parts of the culture, including the language, is very strong. Perhaps Thomsen meant that for the Greenlandic people rock n roll is the everyday norm, while traditional music is for more special occasions.
Contrast that with some of the First Nations people; who have regular powwows and sing their traditional songs as a matter of course. Fittingly, it was a nice touch to have the band Northern Cree give a live taste of their traditional music to the gala première guests. To the untrained (and perhaps less sophisticated) ear, they had a special blend of high-pitched rhythmical singing mixed with English lyrics about modern-day problems. Just after singing a song about having Facebook dramas, the lead singer said with sweat beading down his forehead, “It’s hard work singing in this style!”. The performance was certainly worth seeing, and immensely well-received by the crowd at the première.
The verdict? Films and indeed events like these can only push the boundaries of indigenous identity and culture further. It’s an exciting project to reflect upon, especially as globalism is making the world more similar. I should also note that most of the event’s proceedings was conducted in the Greenlandic language only. This made it slightly hard for everyone else, including the non-Greenlandic speaking Greenlanders (and visitors like Northern Cree) to completely understand what was happening.
The Ravens Storm is not yet released to the general public, but is currently being sent to film festivals.
- NEWS: Tulugak soars during final Ottawa shows (nunatsiaqonline.ca)
- Inuit throat singing (thefourthcontinent.com)
- NEWS: Less than two in three Inuit speak an Inuit language: StatsCan (nunatsiaqonline.ca)