The Arctic Winter Games are upon us. Actually, by the time you read this, they’ll nearly be over, but from my point of view, they stretch out to a seemingly endless horizon. It feels as though nearly every entity on the Kenai Peninsula, from tourist organizations to quickie lube places, have been gearing up for the games. There’s sporting events, plays and even a film festival (aha! there’s the relevance.)
The Kenai Convention and Visitors Bureau is hosting the Kenai International Film Festival, a rather impressive title, and appropriate considering the films to be screened come from Alaska and northern Canada.
Focusing almost exclusively on Native themes, the film festival is an event the like of which we see very little of on the peninsula. With our area’s emphasis on industry and fishing-based tourism, I think we lose sight of many of the cultural traditions that still are widely practiced the farther north you go.
This festival is an entertaining diversion for the hordes of infiltrating gamers, but it’s also a powerful reminder to the locals of our state’s heritage.
Unfortunately for this reviewer, the cruel chains of the newspaper deadline allowed me to only see one of the six different films showing at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center this week.
On Sunday I showed up for the screening and discussion of “To Play the Games,” a documentary outlining the events at the World Eskimo Indian Olympics in Fairbanks. “Games” features footage of and interviews with some of the top contenders in the various Inuit games competitions that take place across the state and northern Canada, and, to a lesser extent, across the arctic world.
These games, which have their roots in traditional northern skills, have become more about the competition and the athletic ability than about keeping in touch with history. However, the cultural aspect is deeply rooted, and will probably never be entirely lost.
I was reminded, to an extent, of watching a rodeo. The traditional skills that southern and western cattlemen needed to ply their trade became the subject of a competition in the same way that the hunting and fishing skills of the north did.
The ability to snatch and hold onto a fish directly from the river became the greased stick pull. The blanket toss was a method of spotting whales far off the coast line. The four-man carry mimics the ability to haul home a load of seal meat, and so on.
The film outlines this historical context, but filmmakers Phillip Blanchett and Jonathon Stanton were quick to point out during the question-and-answer session that they are not attempting to romanticize the games by grafting flowery spiritual themes over them. These are athletic competitions first and foremost.
Indeed, some of the activities seem far-removed from any cultural context. I never really did figure out where the various kicking sports, by far the most popular, at least for the filmmakers, come from. But that’s no detriment, to the film or the games themselves.
How many Eurocentric and Southern sports do we all take for granted, despite their total lack of practicality? Shot put, for example. What’s that all about?
While I was interested in the subject matter and in the interviews of “To Play the Games,” it’s difficult to gauge its actual filmic quality. That’s probably because it’s not really a whole film. “Games” runs 25 minutes and is, by the filmmakers admission, really just a promotion, a fundraising tool, if you will, for a larger project they plan to do with PBS.
The work shows promise, and I hope they get their funding, because I think a longer, more fleshed-out version of what I saw could really be something special.
As it is, “Games” is a good introduction to Inuit games, especially to someone like me who had next to no knowledge of them, and is also a good opening to the film festival which will, hopefully, be a successful and widely attended cultural event.
For more information on specific films and times, contact the visitors center at 283-1991.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.
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