Atanarjuat

(The following is an edited version of the comments on this film which Keith Thomas posted to the Evolutionary Fitness discussion list on 18 January 2003.)

Back on 21 August 2002 I alerted you to the then-recent film Atanarjuat.  I saw it on 6 December 2002 and here are some observations. I don't go to the cinema often enough to call the following a 'review' and, in any case, I focus here on what I see as most relevant to Evolutionary Fitness - and plenty was!

The film is a full-length (over three hours) professionally-filmed story set in Canada's Arctic north around 1,000 AD.

The plot of the film is apparently a traditional Inuit story, and if it does not itself reach back 1,000 years, the ingredients do: men fighting for women; women competing for men - ruthlessly; one seductress is determined to win the film's hero; there is murder, intrigue, patricide and deceit.

The plot is played out in two settings: the arctic wilderness and, more strikingly, the large igloos which housed an extended family.

All the tools, clothing, food, sleds, dog teams, kayaks, tents etc. are as authentic as they could make them.  These props were superb.  Bone knives cut reindeer flesh that is eaten raw. Multi-layer polar bear skins keep out the cold. In the igloo a tiny, frugal flame burns away providing a dull light but does not consume so much oxygen that the inhabitants suffocate. Here my 21st century Western biases were shocked into realizing how different tribal life is from mine today.  I had exactly the same impression when I read William Buckley's account of his 35 years as a member of an Australian Aborigine tribe 1801-35 - and I am sure it would apply in many other settings: the claustrophobic atmosphere of the igloo was not just physical, it was social. There was absolutely no privacy: sex, belching, and unwashed human bodies were cramped together; individuality would have been death.  Indeed, it was individuals who broke the mores - and whose behaviour was outside the accepted and prescribed boundaries - who shaped the plot.  'Unscripted' behaviour in this tightly-scripted society had unpredictable outcomes.

At the beginning of the film the narrator says 'Evil came - no-one knew where or when'.  And this - to me - totally unsatisfactory explanation was
clearly no problem to the Inuit. Their acceptance of the total absence of what I might call a 'beginning' to the story was emblematic of their world
view - pre-scientific, unquestioning of the sorts of things we automatically probe, question, strive to understand.

We think of 21st century activity patterns - exercise - and diet as distinguishing us from hunter-gatherers and we discuss on the Evolutionary Fitness list how best to recreate in some way aspects of Paleolithic life to bring us more closely into line with our evolutionary inheritance. Atanarjuat brought home to me that the intimate sharing of social space, the knife-edge relationships that often exploded violently are vital aspects of Paleo life that I will endeavour to understand but have no wish to participate in. I can retire to my study or my shed or go shopping or go rowing with people who are unrelated to me and who I never come across when I am not rowing - I can escape.

In Atanarjuat, we see the bullying, ganging up, taunting, merciless teasing and how the victim has to grin and bear it; he cannot flee the room. And when they are outside, hunting, they are constantly thinking of the relationships back home - their actions are driven by them in fact.  Formal relationships are important, too: one woman spends some time explaining how her mother was also her grandmother as a result of marriages. This is not a 'curiosity' to her; this is a significant reality which establishes for her a complex set of relationships and obligations to and from others that channel her life.

About the only totally unsatisfactory aspect of the film was the dental state of the actors: their mal-formed jaws, decayed and twisted teeth showed they were 21st century actors, not 11th century characters! The acting was a little clumsy and it is clear that many of the extras were nervous participants in the film, but covered for their nervousness by over-acting.

This film has done a lot to alert me to my tendency to uncritical 'romantic primitivism' and has opened my eyes to aspects of hunter-gatherer life that I had not previously considered. It reinforces Daniel Quinn's message that we must go forward, not back.

Don't believe the reviews you read of the film.  All those I read, including that in the film's brochure, fail to describe the film I saw. See it if you can!

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