Cinema at the End of the Earth: Representing the Arctic

By March 1, 2020News

The Arctic is not an “empty, uninhabited space upon the margins of civilization outside of time, outside of history, and outside of modernity,” according to Dr. Chip Oscarson (Department of Comparative Arts and Letters). This week’s films, as programmed by Oscarson in his position as co-director of the International Cinema, all center around representing the Arctic. Each film takes a different approach to the subject, which Oscarson explained in turn. First, he showed a series of maps of the world. The Arctic, he noted, is often absent or completely distorted on many map projections. Oscarson then showed a map where the north pole was at the very center with Moscow, Toronto, and Reykjavik on the periphery. Geographic definitions centered on Europe or the Americas misrepresent.

Another form of the Arctic’s misrepresentation comes from mathematical projections. These are often used by corporations and governments for information about possible scientific, industrial, or political strategies. These, like the map projections, do not offer holistic understandings of the region, with its great diversity of indigenous peoples, travelers, varied landscapes, and wildlife. Oscarson suggested that film can present another way of understanding the Arctic and that the films this week were chosen specifically to offer a few different approaches.

The Arctic has been of interest to filmmakers from the early days. One such example is of George Méliès’s The Conquest of the Pole (1912) in which a group of European explorers travel to the North and meet terrible, wild monsters that almost destroy them. Here the Arctic is used as a periphery or an untamable Other to Europe’s modernity. Another important early film is the pioneering documentary Nanook of the North (1922) shot on location in Northern Canada by Robert Flaherty. Although marketed as an ethnographic documentary, in some cases Flaherty actually had his actors reenact traditional Inuit practices for the camera, even when some of those practices had long since been abandoned suggesting how even documentary film can be as much a projection of certain ideas as a record of objectively exists. 

The four films about the Arctic showing this week each show a different dimension of the region and how we are connected to it. Genesis 2.0 (2018) is a documentary about hunting mammoth tusks in Siberia. The hunters defy their people’s traditional beliefs in excavating the remains that emerge as the climate warms and the permafrost melts in the hope of getting rich. Their discovery of an impeccably preserved baby mammoth quickly awakes the interests of scientists hoping to re-create the species, a la Jurassic Park (1993) and sends the documentary around the world into thorny questions about how humans are altering the geological history of the planet. 

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) is another interesting representation of the Arctic, although it was filmed in California, thousands of miles from the Pole. This slapstick comedy began production in the Sierra Nevadas, near Donner’s Pass, but after terrible working conditions and uncooperative weather they shot the rest of the film in the studio with tons of fake snow. As a film it thematizes (and satirizes) the modern cosmopolitan subject’s relationship with space, and in terms of its substitution of the studio, for the Sierra Nevadas, for the Klondike it is an example of what Mark Sandberg has termed “place promiscuity” in film.  

Ága (2018) is set in the Siberian Arctic where the film follows an indigenous family who have continued to live according to traditional customs. This film is directed by a Bulgarian who makes what Oscarson referred to as the “ethnographic camera.” This view focuses on how these people could survive in what seems like such a demanding climate, a project not unlike Nanook of the North, but this time with less manipulation. 

Finally, Arctic (2018) is a survival film following a downed pilot (Mads Mikkelsen) who acts out our fantasy of the perfect survivalist. Oscarson suggested that these survival films are evidence of our “trying to imagine how to live outside of our ability to specialize,” as the pilot must do every imaginable task to survive without any societal or economic support. 

What unites all these films together, beyond the icy settings, is their attempt to expand our perspectives, suggest Oscarson. Understanding the Arctic helps us to better understand ourselves and the ways in which we are connected to each other and to local and planetary systems.