Filmmaking from the point of view of the heart March 24, 2010

While watching Len Kamerling’s films today on a large screen, with beautiful image and sound, I felt very happy that this year’s festival had chosen these films for its special programme. Kamerling’s filming was represented by three films: two of them about Eskimos (this word is not depreciative for this Alaskan native people!) and one made in Japan. Or so could we sum them up superficially. If we listen to the filmmaker, however, we notice that he always emphasises the word „community“: he has filmed communities. What are communities? On the one hand, undoubtedly, there is a geographic meaning of the word – the inhabitants of the villages of Gambell (on Saint Lawrence’s island between Alaska and Siberia) and Emmonak on the coast are communities. Still, the third film, made in Japan, shows that the concept is deeper and more subtle. Is the film about Kanayama village community? True enough, but it goes deeper: its community represents the people concerned with the village school, with education issues, who are connected with school world through different kind of fine threads, from the director, who is like a conductor who gives life to an orchestra, up to the elder generation of villagers interacting with children.

The concept of „community“ is a keyword for Kamerling’s work: his choice of subject and main character for his films corresponds to his method of filming, whose keyword is „collaborative“. Len Kamerling’s ego as an author is as unobtrusive as possible. He has developed his own filmmaking philosophy – apparently shared by Sarah Elder, with whom he made the Inuit films – in which he gives a central role to the communities filmed and which is built up on respect towards them: all the decisions concerning filmmaking are taken collaboratively with the people who may be concerned by the film (the whole of Gambell for Spring Ice, the dancer’s group in The Drums of winter, teachers, parents and children in Heart of the country. They are associated at all stages, from the choice of the theme as well as during the shooting and the editing. Often they orient the contents of the film, which may become entirely different from what the filmmaker had imagined when starting the project. That does not mean that Kamerling rejects responsibility: as he twice emphasised, the final result were born in the editing room. Unlike what is often taught in film schools – that one must already think of the editing while filming – Kamerling prefers to remain open and to film without being influenced by future editing. This is actually one of the advantages of filming when you do not understand the language spoken, as he says. Only when all the material has been shot, when filming has been lasting for months and the filmmakers have been living with the community, only then can the story emerge, around which the film will be functioning. So Kamerling does not reject responsibility on the others, but he takes care that the interests and the sensitivity of the people he films are taken into account and respected. That people would recognise themselves in his films and would recognise the films as their own.

Undoubtedly in the first film that was shown today, On the Spring Ice, this goal was quite simple to achieve. The issue shown in the film was essential for the Gambell community: it concerned such a vital activity for survival as spring mammal hunt, an activity that takes place when currents may lead the melting ice to close on the hunters, thus endangering their very life. The whole village follows their ordeal, especially the women, who do not traditionally hunt in a boat and remain at home. This permanent danger that threatens the men is partly compensated by the use of firearms, that make the task easier for the hunters and give less opportunities to the animals to escape their fate (as Aleksei Peterson emphasised in the discussion), and also by the contemporary rescue means, as we discover in the first episode of the film, when a coast guard helicopter rescues hunters in trouble. Anyhow spring hunting remains a need for survival and as we discover in the film, the Gambell Eskimos have all the necessary equipment and modern means of communication. As Kamerling emphasised, this image is undoubtedly in contradiction with the stereotype of the primitive Eskimo... But it is also different from what researchers are accustomed to witness while working in Russia, where most of these means are, or at least were at the time too expensive for native communities. A final comment about this film: it is good ethnography, which is always necessary. Processes are filmed from the beginning to the end and that guarantees that this material is and remains usable both by researchers and by the communities themselves, if one day there will be the need to teach future generations endangered skills.

The second film, The Drums of Winter, focuses on Eskimo dance, which is accompanied by drums. As Kamerling mentioned, this film is deeper, more complicated than the first. It penetrates deeply into the Yupik Eskimo soul. For dancing is for them not only a symbol of collective identity, but also a way of expressing individual emotions. The understanding of dancing for the Eskimo differs from what dancing means for Westerners: in dancing, the arms are the members that are in motion, almost magically. The men sit on the floor, the women stand behind them – they don’t whirl, and move very little. But the resolute and light movements of the arms follow the rhythm given by the drums, and they draw in the air extraordinary patterns thanks to dancing fans made of feathers and caribou hair, sculpted with figures that are important for the dancers or for his or her forefathers. One has the impression that the movements of the dancers are not exactly symmetric, as they would be for instance in western ballet: each dancer follows his or her emotions within a given framework – but as a whole all these movements are extraordinarily harmonious. Still, the importance of dancing is not only aesthetic, emotional or ontological, it is also social: the inhabitants of two villages who visit one another in order to attend the other’s dancing exchange presents. For me, it was particularly interesting to discover that when at the beginning of the 20th century the Christian missionaries fought fiercely against dancing, one of their main reproaches was this gift exchange habit: for them, dancing was not only a waste of time and a way of spending time that has a scent of paganism, it was also, through the gifts, an unacceptable waste of money. The “white” Christians could not accept that for the Inuit possessing was not a value; in the Eskimo societies, there are efficient wealth equalising mechanisms that function even nowadays (as for example the home bingo playing mentioned once in the film is one of them) which may lead to people giving away all they have. Still, they have no reason to be afraid: the community won’t let anybody starve. But this was for missionaries an incomprehensible and sinful behaviour and they attempted to eliminate it. Historic parts in the film show interesting documents about missionary thinking, being redeemed by today's Jesuit attitude of remorse and support for revitalisation. In the film there are many touching moments: the clear and direct words of the elder, in their own language; the little girls dancing for the first time. I remember particularly a moment in which women who did not dance moved their hands discreetly and rhythmically: a little girl did the same, and that was pleasant, because it was proof that when the film was shot, there was still instinct in the younger generations. The young girls interviewed – who were at university far from their communities – were pessimistic about the survival of this tradition. Still, an older man was right: “It keeps going, wherever you go, it exists”, and now, there is actually a revival.

Kamerling’s work has undoubtedly contributed to this revival; the material he filmed together with Sarah Elder has been kept, catalogued, partly digitised: in short it is available. Kamerling has a special foundation for that, whose importance can not be overestimated: this material’s value increases with time. One could say, taking into account filmmaking’s method, that the communities themselves have provided this gift for themselves. But is has become possible thanks to the initiator and implementer of the project.

For Kamerling, the ethic dimension is central, as Heart of the country, the film made in Japan, shows. As a matter of fact, it is a film he made mostly himself, even the editing (Sarah Elder, his partner in the Inuit films, is not involved). There are common features with the Inuit films, and these are probably of Kamerling’s signature. Their name is heartiness, warmth, humanity and they are central in this film: not only the school’s director, but also the teachers emphasise how kindness in needed by everybody: by the parents, by the teachers, by the children themselves. The adults’ generation have had harsh life experiences: an extremely cold and hierarchical school system, distance in relationship with parents. One has the impression that there is in the Japanese society a huge need for warmth that is expressed in this film. Unlike the stereotypes about Japan, the film enhances the respectful mutual relations between teachers and students; the students greet every day the teachers bowing, and the teachers answer them bowing themselves; the director eats at the school canteen at the same table with the children and talks with them and the teachers are those who show to the parents how to interpret difficult features in their children as promising qualities. To characterise the functioning of this community the keyword would certainly be “heart”: the title of this blog paraphrases a phrase by one of the characters “education from the point of view of the heart”. But it would have been impossible to transmit this philosophy without the same kind of approach to filmmaking: filmmaking from the point of view of the heart.

Eva Toulouze

Leonard Kamerling presenting his films (Photo: Daniel Allen)