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An extraordinary and endangered life

The Book of the Sea (Kniga morya)
Regissør: Aleksej Vakhrusjev

Yupik-Inuit / The Book of the Sea is a mesmerizingly beautiful close-up of a way of life that disappears in line with the melting of the Poles, showing a side of Russia we have barely seen before.


The Book of the Sea takes us to a group YupikInuit living far northeast of Russia, along the icy coast of the Bering Strait. Filmmaker Aleksei Vakhruschev (b. 1969) – who himself grew up in a Yupik Inuit family – is educated at Moscow's acclaimed All-Russian State Cinematographic Institute (VGIK), and in his latest film, he highlights the existence and challenges of a people who both literal and metaphorical sense are on the edge of the cliff. At a rapid pace, the climate crisis is destroying something that has survived for millennia.

The Book of the Sea
The Book of the Sea (Kniga morya) Director Aleksej Vakhrushev

In the scarce century that has passed since Robert J. Flaherty's groundbreaking silent film about the Inuit in Canada, Nanook of the North (1922), the lives and lives of the Arctic indigenous peoples have rarely been given close and detailed attention. Vakhruschev -
who directs and produces his films through his own company, High Latitudes – has personal knowledge not only of the melancholy and dazzling beauty of the landscape he has grown up in (the icy lakes, the midnight sun), but also to the depths of pain and despair like modern times , governments, and global warming have inflicted – and inflicted – such small communities.

The Book of the Sea is centered around a group of hunters who provide basic protein supply in a community of 1500 souls – most of them unemployed and many of them alcoholic (including, according to the film's press information, the hero's son, Aleksej Ottoj). The look of the camera lens is anything but anthropological and glossy – it is merciless, bold and without a filter.

Hunting Happiness

Grippingly interwoven with animated sequences related to the creation myths and legends of the Yupik Inuit, the opening sequence shows an act – an intriguing whale hunt through ice-covered oceans under the Arctic Vault – performed regularly in roughly the same manner over the past millennia. The boats have now got outboard motors, but the harpoons are basically the same primitive weapons used by the ancestors – a human hand throws the spear into the curved spine on the large sea monster when it emerges from the sea after air just meters from the small boat.

A life in harmony with nature requires a fundamental and all-encompassing respect.

For privileged, liberal viewers – who are aware of the shocking loss of species and habitats in the last fifty years and who know that we are facing a sixth mass extinction – these scenes may feel overwhelming. But for Aleksey and the other hunters, the hunt is about life or death, and not least the chance of a future far more promising than the bottom of the cheap vodka bottle offers, the one that saw too many of the inhabitants of the small coastal town of Lorino drown.

At a rapid pace, the climate crisis is destroying something that has survived for millennia.

After the harpooned whale – which has fought hard to escape the hunters – is finally secured and dragged dead ashore on the ice-covered beach bank, the inhabitants stumble together to assist the slaughter. It all bears the mark of social festivities. Women and children come with bags to receive their share of the vital meat and fat, as the traditional folk tales tell them. The mothers feed their children with bits of raw whale, while the hunters smile and smile in the gentle dusk.

Seen in this context, this is a scene that very beautifully describes sustainability, balance and cost: It is a side of a way of life that has always taken in itself that a life in harmony with nature requires a fundamental and all-encompassing respect.

Fight against the elements

The Book of the Sea has a simple but effective soundscape and also a subtle tone of mild humor: In particular, the efforts of two white camouflage-clad yupik hunters trying to sneak into a seal lying on the ice and enjoying the winter sun, creates a light and comical situation – deadly serious , yet it gives the audience a breather from the relentless tale of the survival struggle against the elements. (Spoiler: Selenium gets away unharmed.)

Kniga morya
The Book of the Sea (Kniga morya)
Director Aleksej Vakhrushev

The myths and norms this hardy people live with and under are conveyed through animated scenes. “Worship all things and celebrate everything that surrounds you – the mountains, the rivers, the sea and the coast. Without nature we cannot count ourselves and our relatives as' the real people '', the main message of this tale of a life very distant from modern life is that most of us live. By placing the story of the maintenance of a traditional way of life in a modern age into a context of myths and magic from bygone times, Vakhrushev achieves his own form of visual poetry.

Although the film is built around the hunt for whales, walruses and seals, some sinking of eggs as well as some animation scenes of bird hunting, and not least the wear and tear of the ever-present ice, it is difficult to spot a clear plot. But the narrative structure reveals the cultural depths of the images of the men with rifles and harpoons in the hands of a boat on the icy sea, leaving the viewer with an eternal respect for those living life on the edge of the cliff.

See mention of The Last Ice Hunters about the hunting culture in Greenland.

Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Holdsworth is a writer, journalist and filmmaker.

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