Magnetic North: Voices from the Indigenous Arctic at the British Museum
The opening shot goes on for an eternity: a vast, otherworldly landscape, craterous with snow and ice, and patterned with a kaleidoscope of moody blues, gloomy greys, and empty whites. As the camera creeps forward, there’s seemingly no end to this expansive waste – it looks like it could be another planet. It’s actually our polar Arctic.
Presented by Border Crossings’ ORIGINS Festival in partnership with the British Museum, Magnetic North: Voices from the Indigenous Arctic is a cinematic collection like no other. The film is a deeply atmospheric amalgamation of the work of the polar population, featuring the talents of Arctic artists, from Inuit poetry to the Greenlandic mask dance. The end result is overwhelming, both in its merits and its flaws.
From the offset, the viewer is immersed in the rites and rituals of the far north, without the pedantry of explanation or context – one is simply presented with their music, poetry and ceremonies as they are, without any additional information. As such, there’s an incongruous mix of high and low-tech segments, ranging from grand, esoteric landscape drone shots to screen recordings swiped off Skype. Yet, they’re unified in wonder: for the culture, for the land, for the people and their deep history.
The directly addressed nature of much of the footage also plays wonderfully into the aural tradition of the Arctic – although it’s not without shocking moments. Indeed, the vignettes are so tenderly crafted and beautifully presented that they often mask “double-take” details, like a folktale of an Indigenous girl impregnated by her dog (no, really). It’s instances like these that remind the viewer that they’re getting a candid look into this rich culture, without it being perverted or sullied by outsider values and sensibilities; the content can be surprising, but it’s truthful and so joyous to behold.
Equally, Magnetic North isn’t afraid to notch political arrows into its crossbow. One memorable segment begins with the speaker asserting that “colonialisation is a pyramid scheme,” before explaining how the arrival of outsiders has robbed the Indigenous people of their natural “wealth”. Moreover, the entire film has a mournful tone, as if sombrely remembering what is now lost. The barren shots of landscape today are intercut with historical tools and clothing, or recreations of traditional dances; the film is grieving for a culture that has slowly been chipped away by the merciless business of colonisation. Harrowing stuff, but worth the look.
For all the production’s merit, at a cumulative 90-minutes without any over-arching structure, the vignettes do begin to bleed together. Each section works well in isolation, but it makes for a difficult experience all at once. At times, the pacing is almost iceberg-like, lazily drifting across icy Arctic water; beautiful, but so slow. Nevertheless, consumed in small bursts or by dedicated viewers, Magnetic North is an engrossing exploration of a culture that is quietly melting away.
Magnetic North: Voices from the Indigenous Arctic was screened on 3rd December 2020 as part of Arctic: Culture and Climate at the British Museum, which is on from 22nd October 2020 until 21st February 2021. For further information or to book visit the British Museum’s website here.