Aleksei Vakhrushev’s The Book of the Sea is a hypnotically beautiful study of a life vanishingly rare as the global climate crisis melts the polar caps, dooming what has endured for millennia.
An Inuk of the Yupik Inuit people who live on the frozen coast of Russia’s far northeastern Bering Strait, Vakhrushev – a graduate of Moscow’s famous VGIK film school – chronicles the lives and challenges of native people living both literally and metaphorically on the edge.
Nearly a century after Robert J. Flaherty’s seminal silent film study of Canada’s Inuit, Nanook of the North, the lives of Russia’s and other natives of the Arctic regions are rarely seen in such close up, intimate detail.
Vakhrushev, who directs and produces through his High Latitudes company, understands both the haunting beauty of his native landscapes – the frozen seas, the midnight sun – and the depth of pain and despair that modern times, governance and global warming are bringing to such communities.
the lives of Russia’s and other natives of the Arctic regions are rarely seen in such close up, intimate detail.
Focused on a group of hunters who provide basic proteins for a community of 1,500 souls – most of whom are unemployed and many of which are alcoholics (including – according to the press notes for the film – the son of its hero, Alexey Ottoy) – The Book of the Sea is not anthropological gloss, but searing, gritty and true.
Thrill of the hunt
Poignantly interwoven with animated sections relating creation myths and legends of the community, the opening sequence – a thrilling whale hunt across ice-speckled waters under arching Arctic skies – can have changed little over thousands of years. The boats may have outboard motors, but the harpoons are essentially the same as primitive weapons, heaved by the throw of an arm into the arching spine of the leviathan just metres away from the small boat’s hull.
For privileged liberal viewers all too aware of the sixth mass extinction underway, and the shocking loss of species and habitats in the past half-century, the scenes may make for uncomfortable viewing. For Alexei and his fellow hunters, this is a game of life and death and the view so much more promising than through the bottom of a cheap bottle of vodka, the focus for too many in the shoreline village of Lorino.
The myths and mores of these hardy people – told through the animated narrative: «Worship everything and celebrate all that surrounds you: the mountains, the river, the sea, the shore. Without them, we cannot consider ourselves and our relatives the ‘real people’», – is the substratum of this story of a way of life so far removed from the experience of most people on the planet.
When the harpooned whale – which has fought hard to escape its tormentors – is finally secured and pulled dead from the sea onto the icy shore, its butchering becomes a social event, with women and children gathering with bags for their portion of the essential «meat and fat» spoken of in the fairy-tales that sustain the community.
Mothers feed children pieces of raw whale blubber as the hunters grin and laugh in the gentle twilight.
Seen in this context, it is a scene of beauty and sustainability, of balance and bounty. It is part of a way of life that has always understood the respect that underpins living in harmony with nature.
Elements for survival
There’s also a gentle humour to the film – supported by a simple, but effective musical score. In particular, the efforts of two white-camouflage clad hunters to creep up on a seal basking on the ice under the winter sunshine, though deadly serious, makes for some light relief from this relentless tale of struggle with the elements for survival. [Spoiler alert: the seal escapes unscathed.]
Through tying this story of the struggle to maintain a traditional lifestyle in modern times within the context of the myths and magic of ancient ways, Vakhrushev achieves a certain type of visual poetry.
the depths of culture behind images of men on icy oceans harpoons and rifles to hand, leaves one with a lasting respect for those who live on the edge.
Although it is formally structured around hunts for whales, walruses, and seals, and the struggle with the ubiquitous ice (with some egg collecting thrown in and animated images of bird hunting for good measure), there is no particular plot. But the narrative structure that reveals the depths of culture behind images of men on icy oceans harpoons and rifles to hand, leaves one with lasting respect for those who live on the edge.