Sunday, 28 October 2007

The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath

Robert Flaherty and the Frozen North

Lucille Redmond

FATHERS are getting feisty, looking for rights of custody and control over children whose mothers they've never married; even children not yet born.

Maybe it's not a bad thing. With rights - perhaps - come responsibilities. And kids need fathers.

The filmmaker Robert Flaherty was a case in point, as Melanie McGrath reveals in The Long Exile, the riveting story of his secret Inuit son, Josephie.

Flaherty was long dead when a scandal rocked Canada in 1993. Hearings revealed child abuse, prostitution, a horrifying suicide rate, a 23pc death rate of children, and resolute government inattention as the Inuit relocated to Ellesmere Island starved in the 1950s - among them, the son Robert Flaherty abandoned, Josephie.

Over a lifetime, Flaherty filmed all over the world. In the 1930s he was on Aran, sending currachs into dangerous storms. A crew were almost lost; a woman was snatched from the clifftops by a wave and saved only by the giant strength of her co-star. Children were filmed teetering in gale-force winds on the deadly crumbling cliffs at Dun Aengus, the hungry waves clawing at them.

"I should have been shot for what I asked people to do, all for the sake of a keg of porter and £5 apiece," he said later.

He could resist neither a dramatic shot nor a lovely woman.

In 1921 Flaherty made Nanook of the North. To play the hunter Nanook he chose the greatest hunter of his time, Alakariallak. Nyla, one of Nanook's two wives, was played by sweet-faced Maggie Jujarluktuk - Flaherty's lover.

That Christmas Day, Flaherty long gone, Maggie gave birth to Josephie, who would never see his father.

In the Arctic, the whites found it fun to shoot caribou, the main Inuit food and clothing supply. Herds of hundreds of thousands dwindled to nothing as they were shot and left to rot.

A people who had commanded the Arctic were reduced to dependency on a tiny dole from the Canadian government, and the sale of fox fur and carvings. Alcoholism, TB and suicide were endemic.

Nanook of the North became an international craze. 'Nanook' ice creams were made showing the face of Alakariallak - as the great hunter starved to death in the brutal winter of 1923, on a fruitless search for caribou.

Flaherty, now involved in a South Sea Islands film, told interviewers he "felt bad about" the death.

He was starting to make the great films of his life; films that had a theme in common - often there was a beautiful boy, learning of life side-by-side with his father.

When Josephie was seven, Maggie's husband went out to hunt. His tent was found, empty, beside a hole in the ice. So Maggie moved in with her dead husband's brother, Paddy Aquiatsuk.

Josephie was lucky in this third father: Paddy was a renowned sculptor, and an influential, canny, brilliant man who loved his stepson and taught him to hunt.

In Tahiti, Flaherty was finding it difficult to make a harrowing enough film about the warm life of the South Sea Islanders, but eventually he centred the film on a lovely girl called Reri.

She was brought to New York, and put in the Ziegfeld Follies, married, toured Europe, split; her work dried up and she returned to Tahiti a broken woman.

"I feel bad about it," Flaherty said. "I guess in a way I'm partly responsible."

In the Arctic, Maggie died, and Paddy married a widow called Mary, who brought four more kids with her.

Life was tough. Paddy and Josephie's extended family was half-starved, living at times on flour and water.

Josephie, now 16, was hired as 'chore boy' in the weather station. Having the job meant he could marry the girl he'd been courting, Rynee.

The Second World War arrived, and the United States began to move in on the northern Arctic.

A Canadian Privy Council memo noted that America's temporary airstrips "would probably assume the character of small US bases and Canadian control might well be lost".

You'd have to wonder how much Robert Flaherty's influential romance of the Inuit hunters had to do with the solution chosen.

The Canadian government looked at the Inuit - alcoholic, suicidal, sick, dependent on the dole and subject to white corruption - and had a wonderful idea. Why not return a select group to their natural habitat (under the control of the police), and let them live as nature intended?

Paddy Aquiatsuk (the whites called him 'Fatty') was approached by the local policeman, Ross Gibson (the Inuit called him 'Big Red'), who told of a place teeming with game, where his family could live in the old way, and lied that they could return any time they wanted.

Paddy asked Josephie to go, but Josephie had a job and a wife and two kids by now, and another on the way.

So Paddy and most of the extended family set off, to arrive in hell. They had thin wool clothes, and hadn't been allowed to bring any boat bigger than a kayak - useless in the mushy sea ice of this terrible northland.

Their body clocks stopped working. In the endless winter dark, they did not know day from night, and woke and slept randomly in their tents and huts. They were told that they could kill only one caribou per family per year, so they couldn't make warmer clothes. And when they asked to go back, they were refused.

Paddy wrote to Josephie, pleading that he come. By the time Josephie got the letter, Paddy had died. But Josephie had himself been sacked for giving cheek to his employer. He and his family were starving.

On the ship, Josephie's two-year-old daughter was taken shrieking away and shipped off to be treated for the TB she'd contracted in her half-starved state. He wouldn't see her for three years.

At Grise Fjord on Ellesmere Island, horror followed horror. Two little boys went out to try to find fish. One was found dead, the other never found.

The whites would regularly send out fleets of jeeps to pick up the Inuit en masse and bring them back to the air base to do clean-ups. They were encouraged to spend the pittance they were paid in the bar.

Prostitution and alcoholism became endemic. There was a huge rate of foetal alcohol syndrome - babies born damaged by their mothers' bodies being full of drink.

Josephie and his six-year-old daughter went out every day, feeling their way in the dark, to trek for miles, hunting for what meat or fish they could kill. And slowly he went crazy.

In the dark, the Inuit were at the mercy of the merciless whites who controlled their meagre dole and their very right to hunt and live. The 1993 hearings revealed that teachers had raped children, and women - including Josephie's beloved Rynee - had been forced into sex with whites by promises of extra food. Horror piled upon horror.

Over the years, Josephie developed a fearsome temper, and sullen depression. Some blamed possession by spirits, others the biorhythm disturbances. Others said that a man abandoned by his father to such a fate as Josephie's would go crazy.

In 1968 he had a mental breakdown, from which he never recovered. In 1984 Josephie died of lung cancer.

Long before, in 1951, film commentator John Grierson wrote an obituary for Robert Flaherty. In each of his films, he wrote, there was a boy who hoped to grow into a hero.

Maybe, he speculated, the boy who appeared in all of Robert Flaherty's films was "the son he never had".

The Long Exile by Melanie McGrath is published by Harper Perennial


1 comment:

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