Superficially, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen -- the film that opened this year's Toronto International Film Festival -- is the story of how a small group of Inuit people confronts a changing world. Lead by Avva (Pakak Innuksuk), a powerful shaman, the group is faced with the twin challenges of a weather-induced famine and the arrival of Western culture, in the form of both religion and Greenlandic explore-cultural anthropologist Knud Rasmussen (Jens Jørn Spottag) and his team. Purportedly based on events described in the journals of its title, the film is set in 1912 in the Canadian arctic, moves at an extremely slow pace, and takes place almost entirely in Inuktitut (an ancient language now spoken by fewer than 100,000 people), much of which isn't translated in subtitles. In reality, the film -- the second collaboration from Zacharias Kunuk and Norman Cohn, directors of the award-winning The Fast Runner -- is more a collage of image and sound than it is a traditional narrative feature, and is a challenge well worth audience perseverance.
We see Avva's little tribe -- his family alone consists of several grown children and in-laws, in addition to at least once grandchild -- experiencing a wide range of emotions and events, from family discipline to a wild party; from simply passing the time together to an exorcism of sorts. As viewers, we are kept very much outside of their world, reduced, like Rasmussen and the other White Men, to impotent watchers. At one point, Avva tells the story of his childhood directly to the camera, answering off-screen questions that could just as easily be asked by us as by Rasmussen -- like all cinema-goers, we are voyeurs. The difference here, however, is that the objects of our gaze are always aware of our presence.