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A Review by Vernon Doucette
From Atlantic Coastal Kayaker, March 1998

Amphibious Man
The kayak in Greenland, a 1000 year-old history!
A film by Ivars Silis. Running Time 28 min. $35.00 US (postage and handling included) US Distribution rights held by John Heath

There is a new video release that should be of interest to anyone who kayaks and especially to those who have an interest in northern native watercraft. Ivars Silis, a photographer and filmmaker who lives in Greenland, has produced a video documentary that focuses on the 1995 Greenland national kayak championship, held in Sissimiut on Greenland’s west coast. This tape offers its viewers a glimpse of the state of kayaking in the north as well as an overview of traditional Greenland kayak. Also included are a brief summation of Inuit history in Greenland and a surprising view of what Greenland and its people are like today.

The tape, which is structured in two sections, opens with a shot of a feather on the watcr and pans back to reveal an Inuk practicing his rolls. The setting is a beautiful iceberg studded fjord and John Petersen, the then current champion, is off on his own preparing for the upcoming competition. It is an idyllic scene. We are brought back to reality when the narrator informs us that John is not a hunter but a construction worker and a sportsman and is practicing for an athletic competition. This undermining of the viewer’s expectations quickly becomes a central theme in the film. As John sets off to paddle back to his home in Nuuk, Silis uses this as an opportunity to include sections on the history of kayaking and the Inuit in Greenland. He allows John Petersen to demonstrate his formidable kayaking skills; we are witness to some incredible footage of John paddling his kayak in storm conditions. John also offers a nifty demonstration of a Greenland style pee break (a trick that should give the southern recreational kayaker something new to aspire towards). John is given an opportunity to tell the story of his involvement with kayaking and how his philosophy toward paddling and life in general have been informed by his learning his skills from a previous generation of Greenland paddlers.

The second part of the tape introduces us to the realities of life in Greenland today. Jet skis welcome us to Greenland’s largest city. In a barrage of images calculated to disabuse the viewer of any romantic notion of life in the North. We are introduced to the city of Nuuk where traditional kayaks hang from the patio railing of apartment blocks and rap music (in Greenlandic) blares from boom boxes, skateboarding teenagers and Footage of Greenland’s fishing industry round out the picture of the thoroughly modern Inuit. The contrast from the opening section is a jarring but effective demonstration of how far life in the north has progressed.

Footage of children touring the local kayaking museum allows for the transition to the kayak championship. The competition is comprised of events that would have tested a hunter’s endurance and kayaking skills. It is an all around contest where old skills survive and stamina as well proficiency are the necessary components for success. The competition starts with a 9K paddling and cross-country foot race. Thc competitors carry their boats and paddles while running over land and put in to paddle the water sections. Kayak sprints and harpoon throwing for accuracy and distance follow. The field soon narrows and after a grueling half-hour of rope gymnastics there are only two competitors left to face each other in the final event of the competition the kayak rolling contest. The tape comes to a conclusion with John Petersen and Alan Josephsen matching each other roll for roll in a duel that determines the winner by the narrowest of margins.

Like most of the world’s indigenous peoples the Inuit have become members of a global culture. In truth the difference between all of us is growing smaller all the time. In the course of a couple of life times the Inuit across the North have had to adapt from a people whose survival depended on their ability to adapt to a very demanding natural environment, to one who must contend with the perhaps equally daunting demands of the modern world. Though they have great pride in the past, as always, they view their present situation with pragmatism and lack of romance. In regards to that most beautiful craft that is the subject of this film; this video gives hope that all is not lost. The Greenland Inuit have found a way to salvage the kayak from the trash heap of discarded technologies and its new position in their culture today is one no less important than in the past. It is as a potent cultural symbol that the kayak has managed to survive and is alive and well on the coasts of Greenland. This video is a testament to the fact that as a symbol of cultural pride the survival of the kayak seems certain. As John Petersen relates at one point on the tape, "Kayaking teaches a person to be strong not only physically but deep in your soul."

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