Children of the Arctic: an inevitable face-off between tradition and modernity
by Giorgia Del Don
- Children of the Arctic, by Swiss director Nick Brandestini, takes us to the edge of the world, where ancestral traditions clash with an increasingly intrusive modernity
Children of the Arctic, the second feature film by Nick Brandestini, confirms the Swiss director's talent for portraying the everyday life of communities on the edge, forced to swing between tradition and modernity, seeking a new balance that at times feels like pure utopia. After a first, important appearance at the Zurich Film Festival with his first film, Darwin (Best German Language Documentary), Nick Brandestini has repeated his feat this year, receiving a second Golden Eye for Children of the Arctic in the new category “Focus Switzerland, Germany, Austria”.
For one year, Children of the Arctic follows five teenagers from the indigenous Alaskan Iñupiat people on their journey towards adulthood. Although adolescence is a difficult time for everyone, for the five protagonists of Brandestini's new film, it turns into a time of profound reflection. The choices they must make (remaining attached to the family traditions or taking off on their own, into the unknown) are indeed inseparable from the destiny of their community, as if the price to pay for their freedom was nothing less than the annihilation of their very roots. Like a scientist, Nick Brandestini tries to place the emotions of his protagonists in test tubes, offering us as multifaceted and complete a portrait as possible of an extremely peculiar group of teenagers.
As we follow Flora, Josiah, Samuel, Ace and Maaya's destinies, we become increasingly aware of the incredible social pressure they are placed under. From one scene to the next, we glide with disconcerting ease from school desks to ancient whale-hunting rituals. Their journey is magnificently underlined by the soundtrack composed by Michael Brook (Golden Globe nominee for Into the Wild), which is superimposed on the images as delicately as footsteps on the snow. The guardians of a 1000-year-old tradition, these youngsters struggle on a daily basis for their right to be the worthy heirs of the Iñupiat tradition as well as American teenagers, just like all the rest. This is a struggle that nevertheless turns out to be a much more difficult one than fishing or whale hunting – activities that mark the passing of seasons.
At the end of their studies in Barrow, the protagonists of Children of the Arctic are faced with the toughest decision of their lives: whether to stay or to leave, whether to follow their hearts without forgetting their own traditions or to go elsewhere to find themselves, but thus run the risk of losing themselves, perhaps for good? The answer is to be found in the very images of the film, in the magnificent shots of the frozen plains, in the blue of the sky that seems to stretch away into infinity. Even if they're set on continuing their studies at the University of Alaska, Flora and Josiah, having been brought up to observe Iñupit traditions, cannot stay away from their community for too long, as if the ice had (perhaps) somehow imprisoned them against their wishes.
Living in one of the world's most hostile environments alters not only people’s habits, but also one's outlook on life. Alone amongst the ice one is lost, nothing but a dot amidst the nothingness. Despite individuality being at the centre of our Western mentality, amongst the ice one can only survive as a group. Armed with this notion, Flora and Josiah decide to go back and fight with the group, seeking the balance between tradition and innovation, the only balance that can preserve their heritage. What if this was indeed the path to freedom?
(Translated from Italian)