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The White Dawn: Working in the Arctic with the Inuit
Michael Chapman Film-maker
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I was back in the Arctic in [The] White Dawn... it was living with Eskimos. I... we were... it was... we were just trying to stay alive out on the ice flow every day, you know, it was... it was a level of adventure and things that I had never... I mean I had bummed around a lot, but this was just barely of this world, and here I was out there with all these Eskimos, speaking... I'd learnt some Inuit; I still can remember bits and pieces. I can count to five and various things like that. And I was living this life, and... and people were paying me to do it, and... and I was shooting this extraordinary landscape. If you ever... I don't know, have you ever seen White Dawn... any of you ever seen White Dawn? Oh, I recommend it highly, it's really very... it's... it's not a great movie, but it's a wonderful B movie in a way, and I mean that as... as praise, not as... not to denigrate it. It was, you know, fairly low budget and on a simple subject, where much of the excitement of the movie was 'We're going to take you to a place you've never been before', because, by God, you never had been there, and there, living in igloos and... and living with Eskimos, and... and going out on the ice every day, hauled by the... the cameras, the dogs would run away with the dog-sled and the cameras would go bouncing off down the ice. And it was incredible adventure, and I thought, this industry is going to do this kind of thing for me; I think... I think I found a home; I think this is where I belong.

I'm not sure it was ever quite as otherworldly and as exciting as White Dawn, again, but it certainly sold me. White Dawn is a marvelous movie, it's a marvelous movie... mostly marvelous because... I mean, as a story, and I did a good job and Phil [Philip Kaufman] did a good job and all that, but it's mostly marvelous because of the landscape and... and the Eskimos... oh, you can't say 'Eskimos' anymore, you have to say 'Inuit'... and the Inuit and the... and the landscape were so convincing... so totally, extraordinarily convincing... of course the landscape didn't have to... didn't have any problem; it was there. But the Inuit turned out to be like the Abbey Theatre; they were extraordinary actors. They... of course, they were speaking Inuktitut, so we... they... as in fact they often were, they were making fun of us, but we didn't know that, we thought they were saying their lines, and in the important scenes they were sort of saying their lines. Well, it's true; apparently, I heard later, that whenever it was shown in the Arctic to other Inuit, they would fall down laughing at certain passages, because what they were really saying and what they were supposed to be saying had nothing to do with each other, and like many tribal cultures, they were very randy and... and quite bawdy about things, and so they were saying all sorts of things about us. But, you know, it didn't matter, when... when they had to really act in important scenes they did, and, my God, they would bring tears to their eyes; they were extraordinary, they were like the Abbey Theatre. I told you that... oh, I don't know if I did – that we brought several actors up there, to play the main parts, and within a week the Eskimos said, 'Look, this is not going to fly, they have to... let us do it', and so we just sent them back, since they wanted to talk Eskimo, and they were going to talk Inuit... Inuktitut.

First of all that was quite a problem since these were Japanese actors who didn't speak any Inuktitut, but mostly it was that they were insulted that they felt nobody else could do this stuff, and so they made us send them back, and we did. And they did all the parts and they were extraordinary, wonderful. I mean, the end... I don't want to spoil it for you, you haven't seen it, but it has a sad, tragic ending, where... and it ends with an Eskimo girl... Inuit girl weeping over her... her fallen lover, and she's weeping, you know, and it's... we're in the middle of the Arctic, you know, and tears are pouring down; it's extraordinary. They... and they would... none of them had ever... they had not... never acted before, but they lived in a culture in which people did the equivalent of acting all the time; they... they would amuse each other with... by acting out stories and... and telling things and making fun of each other and... and doing what really is, I suppose, a form of tribal acting, and it all worked out brilliantly. The movie is a success because of them and... and the landscape, not because... again, we did a fine job, we... you know, we... we didn't get killed, and we didn't... we were not eaten by... by polar bears, and we didn't go through the ice, and we managed to get images down and... and sometimes quite striking images, because the landscape and the light are so extraordinary, but it... it's a movie that's wonderful, because of the... because of the Inuit, and because of the Arctic. And it did that primal thing that movies can do; they can say, 'We're going to take you somewhere where you've never been', you know, which photography did, and as I was saying before about 'This is what a pyramid looks like'... well, this is what the Arctic looks like and this is what Eskimos look like, and it's completely convincing, you know, and because they obviously are Eskimos and it really is the Arctic, and those are really seals they're killing, and those are really walrus we're killing and that they're eating, and all that. It just does that primal movie thing of telling you something you've never been told before, and making you believe it, which... which theatre can never... theatre can never do; it does a very different sort of thing, but it doesn't... that's not what it does. It may convince you of some emotion but it isn't going to convince you of the physical reality of a place the way a movie can.

Michael Chapman, an American cinematographer, has had a huge influence on contemporary film-making, working on an impressive array of classic films including 'Taxi Driver', 'Raging Bull', 'The Lost Boys' and 'The Fugitive'.

Listeners: Glen Ade Brown

British Director of Photography and Camera Operator Glen Ade Brown settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago.

He has been working on features, commercials and reality TV. He played an instrumental role in the award-winning ABC Family series "Switched" and is also a recipient of the Telly and the Cine Golden Eagle awards for Best Cinematography. He was recently signed by the Judy Marks Agency and is now listed in her commercial roster.

Tags: The White Dawn, Philip Kaufman

Duration: 5 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: May 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008