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The Velvet Light Trap 55 (2005) 52-64

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Frozen but Always in Motion:

Arctic Film, Video, and Broadcast

Although scholars have devoted considerable discussion to the development of a pan-American media consciousness in terms of production in Mexico and South America, the very exciting work being done at the northern end of the continent has not attracted as much attention in U.S. film and media studies circles. This is a real shame for two reasons. The first is that the material is interesting in itself; in the Canadian Arctic particularly we are seeing a very radical renegotiation of the idea of public broadcasting and of the relationship among film, television, and video, a renegotiation that has produced work that is aesthetically vibrant, locally rooted, and globally relevant. But this Arctic activity is also important in a comparative context. Indeed, in his Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema, Chon Noriega organizes his history along four lines: "(1) the activism that opened the door to film schools, local television stations, and noncommercial funding sources,(2) the development of independent production companies, media advocacy groups, and internationalaffiliations, (3) continued professional and legal efforts to integrate public and network television and (4) the aesthetic strategies that related documentary production to the Chicano movement, national audiences, and Third World politics" (xxxiii). These four strands, as I shall show, are also quite visible in the evolution of a fully formed Arctic media milieu.

Most of the work under discussion here is produced by Inuit people and is in the language of Inuktitut; the politics of the Inuit's place in Canadian confederation and as part of a global community are central to understanding the media of the Arctic.1 From the beginning, film and video in the Arctic were constituted in governmental terms, and local and southern (mostly Ottawa-based/federal) governments took tremendous interest in image technologies. But even though there has been much criticism of the role that governments have played in the evolution of Arctic media (criticism that I will discuss), there has been relatively little in the way of a strictly colonial approach to media, at least compared to the stereotyped representation of other indigenous groups, African Americans, Chicano/Latinos, and so on, in mainstream commercial film and television. Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) is a possible exception here, but the problems in its representations of Inuit life are so widely discussed that I will for the most part dispense with it here in favor of discussing Arctic media in more or less its own terms. The National Film Board of Canada has also had some presence in the Arctic, and while it has played a conventionally anthropological (especially through the Netsilik Eskimo films, 1967–68) and arguably colonial role there, its contribution of most immediate relevance is the training program that it launched there, and that is the aspect I will focus on here. (On the Netsilik Eskimo series see Heider; Sherman.)

Indigenous Arctic media making offers two crucial insights, both of which are consistent with manycurrent debates around globalization and mediatransformation in the Americas and beyond. The first insight is that while governmental impulses are by no means unimpeachable, the absence of a commercial mass-media framework has led to an environment that is relatively open to experiment, even, as I will show with the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, when such innovation is limited by the remits and ideology of public service [End Page 52] broadcast. The other crucial insight that this material offers, though, is that an aesthetic project need not be divorced from one of community activism via technological change. A great deal of film and video work is possessed of an aesthetic that is consistent with the emergence and acceptance of low-cost image technology (Super 8 in the 1970s and 1980s, low-end video and broadcast in the 1980s, and digital video in the 1990s and into the new century). These films and videos are interesting to look at in a way that...


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