Visions du Réel: Ethnographic odyssey

Visions du Réel: Ethnographic odyssey

Shot over four decades, Anerca, Breath of Life (directed by father and son Markku and Johannes Lehmuskallio, and Anastasia Lapsui) is an ethnographic odyssey through the indigenous cultures of northern Europe and North American.


The film’s opening statement puts the case succinctly. The indigenous peoples of our planet’s northern climes (the Chukchis, the Yupik Eskimos, the Canadian Inuits, the Sámi) may live within the borders of Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Canada, Alaska and Russia, but they didn’t create these borders. That was done by invaders very much with commerce on mind, and who cared little about violating indigenous rights and ancient customs. 


Nevertheless, “the inner world view of these people has held firm,” the film states, “at least until now.”


Markku is ostensibly a fiction filmmaker but over the years observers have commented on the remarkable documentary feel of his films and their continual representation of indigenous peoples. “Somehow their style is documentary, but it isn’t documentary,” he maintains of these earlier works.


That said, it means that over the past four decades Markku has collected a lot of additional footage which he decided to catalogue and order for use in this documentary, world-premiering in Visions du Réel’s International Feature Competition. 


That process in itself took 18 months, as well as the business of gathering the associated archive from collections and libraries in Europe, Russia and North America to tell this tale. In 2018 he journeyed with son Johannes and partner Anastasia (herself a member of the Nenets community) to revisit the indigenous communities and bring their stories up to date. 


“It’s been a long road, the 80’s, the 90’s, the beginning of this century and also in 2018,” comments Markku.


Each of the indigenous cultures is offered its own chapter, and each segment is similarly structured with the presentation of an animal/symbol (the raven for the Yipiks, the buffalo for the Inuits, the owl for the Russian Selkups) followed but a short history of how their oppression began after the arrival of the European money-hunters. 


Then we see the performance of ancient dances (almost always accompanied by a flat drum) and the singing of traditional songs. We observe the ritualistic sacrifice/slaughter of animals, such as the Inuit Qarrtsiluni festival of silence following the capture of the season’s first whale, and the Canadian Dene Indians’ placing of reindeers heads on pikes ahead of their immolation, after they have been skinned for their fur.


We also see young participants indulging in distinctly modern dance, whether body-popping in a Greenland shopping mall, or in 21st Century expressionist terms by two identical Sámi twins in traditional dress, performed in a grafitti-laden skate park.


When the subjects talk to the filmmakers the results can be, at times, harrowing, such as the Selkup girl, who looks no older than six or seven, who tells, as she scrubs clothes in a basin, how her mother was beaten by her father until she wasn’t breathing anymore. Her grandmother, also in the frame, subsequently sings of how “our children will live after us like swans.”


Likewise, in footage shot in the early 1990s, the Nganasan Anna (Russia) tells how, as Communist Party secretary in the village, she felt that she betrayed her fellow indigenous people living in the surrounding tundra. “We ripped the people out of their traditional way of life,” she says. “The mistake was made by the party…but I passed on the party’s will to the people.”


The film is an enormous undertaking but one that delivers emotionally and as a piece of keen ethnographic or anthropological research. But it was a tough project, Markku concedes. “We were editing a long time, a really long time. For over a year. It wasn’t an easy film to make.”


Yet it is in the edit, he believes that the material comes to life. “Sometimes film pictures are too [much] reality, you see the house and two people and one cow and so on. But the editing is what makes those pictures live. That moment between two pictures. That makes the film. Filmmaking is editing. I think so.”