Documentary as carving

The Living Stone ©1958 NFB. All rights reserved.

Robert Sternberg looks through an archive of anthropological films and finds a different form of film-making than is typical of contemporary science documentaries.

As a boy, at boarding school in rural Ireland, I longed for escape. I daydreamed of rowing down the lake, camping on the little islands, but mostly I read, disappearing into books. At the age of twelve, I discovered Farley Mowat and became fascinated by the arctic, a land I conjured (by torchlight) under the igloo-blankets of my dormitory bed. The excitement of those night-time adventures came back to me recently when the National Film Board of Canada placed its archive of Inuit films online.

If you look through the archive you’ll quickly find that many of the films are rather depressing. Either they optimistically extol the benefits of formal education and prefab towns that we now know have been disastrous for aboriginal cultures the world over, or else they pessimistically document the inexorable erosion of the Inuit way of life. One particularly bleak scene stays with me: a group of four or five teenagers desultorily hitting golf balls across the tundra before sitting down to smoke weed on a rocky outcrop. Under their feet the stone is carved into intricate patterns but the boys cannot tell the filmmakers anything about the meaning of this art even though it was made by their own ancestors not three generations earlier.

The highlights of the archive, for me, are two documentaries by the New Zealander, John Feeney. Eskimo Artist: Kenojuak is a film about print-making while The Living Stone is about sculpture. Both are excellent but for me The Living Stone is just about perfect. It was shot on Baffin Island in 1957 and tells the story of Niviakse, a hunter and carver. All Inuit men, we are told, are expected to carve. Carving is a sacred duty for through carving a man releases what is otherwise trapped in the stone. This idea resonates with filmmakers, for film too, says Andrei Tarkovsky, is a kind of carving. In fact, Tarkovsky calls it ‘Sculpting in Time’. Sculpting however covers two different techniques: carving and modelling. The carved film is a continuous piece of space-time while the modelled film comprises disparate chunks that are only made to cohere by an overarching voice-over, a bit like the armature a sculptor uses to hold together pieces of clay.

The distinction makes a difference. The ‘carved’ documentary is one in which the on-screen world seems to pre-exist the filmmaker while the ‘modelled’ film imposes form on its fragments and all possibility of another form—another truth—is denied. The carved film achieves its ‘out there’, autonomous effect by employing a syntax of continuity in which scene-time equals screen-time. As in the fiction film, the absence of overt mediation means the viewer seems to have direct access to the on-screen world and may react to it as they might to the world itself. By contrast, the disembodied voice-over of the modelled film anchors its images to a narrow set of connotations that constrains the viewer’s response, making it highly didactic. The science documentary is almost always in this mode.

As the psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips argues, each mode expresses a particular attitude. The modeller values that which can be made his own, while the carver values that which cannot. Creativity is thus conceived differently in the two modes. The creative modeller imposes on their material while the carver (rhetorically-speaking) withdraws from it, ‘coaxing’ the world to liberate its own forms. It is this autopoesis that makes the carved film so compelling: in The Living Stone an autonomous world is seemingly carved-out before our eyes.

From the beginning, and throughout, the film riffs on this theme of carving, or ‘seeing-in’ as the philosopher Richard Wollheim puts it. It begins with six shots of igloos at night.

Light bleeds out between the blocks of snow, emphasising the life within. We enter the low passage of an igloo and find an old man seated inside a circle of children. He tells them of Niviakse, a man he knew “as well as I know myself” and takes from beneath his sealskin coat a small object, also wrapped in sealskin. To the enchantment of the children he folds back the covering to reveal a small carving: a woman whose body ends in the tail of a fish.

Now the story flashes back (a subjective device usually forbidden in the documentary but one that makes sense here because it is a form of carving—cutting into the film’s temporal substance). It is perhaps forty years earlier. Niviakse and his family wait in the igloo for the dark winter to end. They are down to their last drop of oil and the storms prevent Niviakse from hunting; on top of this, he has just one piece of carving stone left. He turns it in his hand, studying it from different angles. Gradually he makes out what’s inside and lifts his axe. What emerges is a woman with a fish’s tail—Nuliachuk, goddess of the sea—who thus released sends Spring to the people, and with Spring, her seals to their breathing holes. Niviakse widens these holes, carving out the ice, and hauls the seals into the light.

A glorious summer follows. Niviakse’s son Ekaluk, makes his first kill and only his mother, and the woman who assisted at his birth (disclosing, like a carver, the hidden contents of his mother’s belly) are permitted to cut open the seal.

The whole village celebrates, marking the highpoint of the short summer. “Soon”, says the old man, “the spirits of the air and sky would freeze the land until it was again like stone”, a living stone, waiting for the artist to carve out its true shape.

Dr Robert Sternberg is a filmmaker and course leader of the MSc in Science Media Production at Imperial College London. Pictures: The Living Stone ©1958 NFB. All rights reserved.


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