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BMZ Review: Great North
By Herb Lash


BMZ Review: Great North
Written by: Herb Lash
Source: Big Movie Zone
Date: Dec 2000


Category: Reviews

Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood has said of the essential difference between Canadians and Americans, "Canadians have to think about Americans, Americans don't have to think about Canadians." Martin Dignard's Great North documents the people and caribou of Northern Quebec's vast and frozen tundra landscapes - these are the people and places most Canadians don't have to think about.  The film is not particularly inspiring, but it is beautifully photographed and informative.  The title, Great North, evokes a feeling of legend and mystery - but the filmmakers are less interested in structuring an expedition-adventure movie than they are in simply capturing images that tell of everyday life in this nearly forgotten land.  Some will enjoy the deliberate pace of the film and some will emerge from the theater convinced that it is possible to know too much about caribou.

Caribou and their domesticated cousins the reindeer are at the heart of Great North. For centuries the Inuit people of the Quebec region have defined themselves by their relationship to the great caribou herds that roam northern most North America.  Inuit songs, language, diet, clothing and daily pursuits are almost all tied to the caribou. The culture is insular and yet incredibly rich. The film is not quite a portrait of a people, but it does offer up intriguing snapshots of the Inuits.  Solitary inukshuk stone sculptures stand out on the frozen planes - striking in form and useful in function, they are used as caribou corral markers. The film moves into the warmth of the human realm, a small Inuit igloo, to experience the oddly beautiful art of throat singing. But outside, the caribou generate a music of their own - thundering hooves resonate and are captured by an Imax camera mounted on a swooping helicopter.

Leaving Canada, the filmmakers find another community centered on the reindeer in Sweden. The Saami people are northern Sweden's answer to the cowboy. The yearly round-up offers up another chance to see far flung landscapes and the people who thrive there. The music and singing of the Saami people provide echo to the solitary, majestic country they inhabit - the film is at its best in those moments where music and natural image seem inseparable.

Scenes from Robert Flaherty's landmark 1920 documentary film Nanook of The North appear in Great North to provide a bit of historical and personal context.  The grandson of legendary Inuit Chief Nanook appears in this film; gracious and strong like his grandfather, but a more modern man than perhaps Nanook could have ever imagined. Nanook of The North is an eloquent expression of simple charm and genuine discovery - though engaging and educational, Great North is unable to conjure this sort of magic.

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