The Last Ice Hunters explores the much-maligned Inuit hunting cultures of the far north and their inevitable tragic extinction.

Dieter Wieczorek
Dieter Wieczorek
Wieczorek is a film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: September 29, 2018

Daily, hundreds of species are disappearing from this planet. At an equally impressive speed, complex, marginalised languages and civilisations get lost. Cultures lose their living spaces. The dominant, globalised, and uniform culture barely takes notice of these disappearances. The ongoing downfall of cultures isn’t a message for big media.

Jure Breceljnik and Rozle Bregar travelled far north, to eastern Greenland, to meet the last few active Inuit hunters. Their daily life has changed dramatically in the last decade. The documentary sets out to record this decay against overwhelmingly beautiful landscapes, thanks to the cinematographic brilliance of Rozle Bregar and Wesley Johnson and the camera work of Miha Avgustin. These images seem to function as the last outcry of a seemingly still-intact nature, which asks for its own right to survival.

Desperate and futureless

Behind this enchanting surface hide the harsh and desperate living conditions of the «last ice hunters». The younger ones especially are the losers in global developments. Having lost their roots, they drift away into alcohol consumption or often straight to suicide, which reaches a European statistical high in these regions.

«The younger ones drift away into alcohol consumption or often straight to suicide.»

The youth have found that their traditional living style focused on seal hunting, which is no longer profitable and, therefore, futureless. Over-exploitation by foreign industrial-scale hunting that is characterised by the use of aggressive, sophisticated hunting technology, also destroys breeding grounds and has left irremediable wounds. Traditional hunting practices seem anachronistic compared to this destructive violence. Already the acquisition of newer hunting equipment costs more than the money to be made by using it.

On the other side, the youth are confronted with inaccessible Western living standards in the form of passing tourists. Their harsh living conditions seem to them unacceptable compared to the comfort of the West. Alternatives are rarely accessible. Job seeking in larger, neighbouring towns offers them at best low-paid, repetitive jobs, which are also only temporary.

An esteemed cultural figure

In their own culture the hunter was esteemed as a central cultural figure, craftsman, specialist, and artist. Once this status is lost, their culture can only break down. Their former society practiced seal hunting without commercial aims as a sustainable way of life. Overhunting was unknown. The protection of the essentials of life, especially the breeding grounds, was respected. All parts of the hunted animals were used or eaten. Greenpeace, a former critic of seal hunting alongside VIPs like Brigitte Bardot, has since admitted that they misjudged the true conditions of this type of hunting and has formally apologised. The culture of the Inuit had been «sustainable» in an exemplary way.

The last ice hunters by Jure Breceljnik and Rozle Bregar

«Eating what we hunt is at the very core of what it means to be Inuit. When we can no longer hunt in the sea ice and eat what we hunt, we will no longer exist as a people» – this quote by Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a militant Inuit ecologist, opens the documentary. The culture of the Inuit is indeed focused on hunting and preparing food. Breceljnik and Bregar offer a scene in which a housewife is sitting on the floor of her well-equipped modern kitchen, preparing dishes. A freezer is not absent. She presents a dozen different animal parts and fish to the filmmakers.

«When we can no longer hunt in the sea ice and eat what we hunt, we will no longer exist as a people.»

The portraits of some selected families and individuals constitute the centre of  The Last Ice Hunters. In common is their attempt to continue their traditions. The number of still-active hunters is estimated at 50 for every 3000 inhabitants. Some youngsters accompany their fathers on their expeditions. Here traditional culture and technique is still alive. But not many metres away large containers are being landed at the port, which is now ice-free for several months during the year.

Possible future

One possibility for survival as a living community under changed circumstances would be the establishment of their own export industry. Containers now can export the fruits of hunting and fishing. Of course this would mean renouncing the refusal to overhunt. But without an increase in income, modern life with imported new technologies, motorisation, and food cannot continue. Most of the inhabitants have already been forced to emigrate and face an uncertain future. Others have chosen hunting tourism as a survival model, combined with temporary jobs away from home. To limit themselves just to hunting would mean to face hunger in bad-weather periods. However, many of them periodically return to their home territory for at least a part of the year, «not to become rich, but to grow as a person», as one of them expresses it.

Jure Breceljnik and Rozle Bregar point out in an impressive manner that micro-cultures, which had preserved themselves over hundreds of years, are losing their survival potential in the face of massive technological and climate change. The resultant deculturing degrades their existence to that of anonymous, servile, and interchangeable breadwinners in an uncontrolled and undirected global consumer culture. The survival projects of their families are the only remaining centre to their existence.

In the Inuit culture the concept of and word for «future» is missing. In a self-sustaining, self-generating culture without the cult of individualisation, this is not really a surprising fact. It is a culture of circular conservation of resources, characterised by well-established gestures and practices. This life model is a clear alternative to the current consumer culture that is steadily drifting towards the global destruction of life, human and otherwise. But tragically, these types of cultures are defenceless when the foundations of their way of life get trampled on. Strategic future planning is a necessity for transforming cultures in a state of permanent crisis, and true members of these cultures can only be marginal onlookers here.

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