Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Critical Historiography in Atanarjuat the Fast Runner and Ten Canoes

Academic journal article Journal of New Zealand Literature

Critical Historiography in Atanarjuat the Fast Runner and Ten Canoes

Article excerpt

Two recent 'Fourth World' films, the Canadian-Inuit Atanarjuat The Fast Runner (2000, dir. Zacharias Kunuk)1 and the AustralianYolngu Ten Canoes (2006, dir. de Heer/Djigirr),2 locate their stories in a pre-European timeframe that perhaps inevitably borrows from the familiar representational framework of traditional ethnography. More directly, both films happen to draw aesthetic and narrative conventions quite explicitly from, respectively, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) and the photographs of Donald Thomson, both exceptionally influential instances of 1920-3Os ethnography.3 Accordingly, at first glance these films appear to reproduce the very power relations that seem most damaging to the possibility of a self-directed Fourth World cinema.4 The films themselves controvert this expectation through a number of sophisticated aesthetic strategies. Thus, although the two films differ quite profoundly at the aesthetic level, they reveal in their common aesthetic strategies a shared historiographical attitude that is revealing of new potentials, charted by both films, in indigenous cinema as such. I wish to suggest that these commonalities reflect in surprising but ultimately very telling ways key theoretical insights made by Walter Benjamin in the late 1930s. More precisely, the significant connections emerge around the sharing of a cultural technology that functions very differently according to whether it is engaged esoterically or exoterically-by members of the communities represented in the films or by others.

If traditional ethnography is concerned above all with the attempt to explain and demystify a cultural 'other' through the communication of technological, religious and cultural particularities, it nevertheless engages a metaphorical story-telling mode, replete with symbolic associations, romantic idealisations and the projection of colonial fantasies. I call characters represented in this mode metaphorical rather than metonymic because they are conceptually at a remove from indigenous people still living. This form of disassociation is concurrent with another: a fundamental separation between observer and observed.5 Postcolonial critics, however, have long since revealed the ubiquity of colonialist representational strategies in depictions of indigeneity. In what is now a well known articulation, Homi Bhabha contends that representations of 'the other' are more defined by the colonist or settler's self-interested projections than actual indigeneity-and so the familiar literary and cinematic form of the indigene is often simply a narcissistic, mirror image of the coloniser/settler, the settler's 'less than one and double'.6

A number of critics have pointed out the tropes used to qualify this self-image, including such familiar devices as the disappearing Indian (inscribing cultural degeneracy as the natural inverse of progress) and the timelessness of a pre-settler past (inscribing authenticity in an impossible ideal).7 I mention these genre conventions both to suggest the difficulty of deploying uncircumscribed notions of traditional indigeneity and to draw attention to the metaphoric nature of these colonialist projections. The individual indigene stands for general challenges to settler authenticity, or uncanny psychic threats (as in the familiar image of the indigenous ghost), or at times as a proxy settler, with an emphasis in each case on breaking the contiguity of the literary indigene and real, contemporary indigenous communities. Metonymic representations pose no such disjoint: the indigenous community is imagined to extend from tradition through modernity, as is the case in both these films. As Shari Huhndorf explores in a recent article on Atanarjuat (an analysis that is also suggestive for Ten Canoes), the visual explanation of traditional technology and the depiction of the Canadian arctic's occupation and use are just two of the more immediate political uses made of the films, furthering the development of cutural unity (in the sense of promoting ties among the members of the community and the sense of a greater connection to the past) and landrights campaigns. …

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